President Trump's East Asia Challenge

President Trump's East Asia Challenge
Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP
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In today's Washington, narratives about the Trump strategy toward East Asia are popping up like late-winter crocuses.  First, it was the candidate's seemingly obsessive focus on China's trade and currency practices and his threats to take retaliatory protectionist actions.

Then the dark references to Beijing's indulgence toward North Korea's nuclear and missile programs menacing South Korea, Japan, and the United States, followed by complaints about China's aggressive actions in the South China Sea. Most of it was dismissed as typical campaign rhetoric carrying over to the pre-Inauguration period.

When President Trump was finally in a position to take official action, his first move--the dramatic telephone conversation with Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen--shocked the system.  It was simply unthinkable to most in the foreign policy establishment that the two Democratic presidents should have direct contact, even before America's president had spoken with the unelected ruler of China--and all because of something called the "One China" policy.

When the new president said he did not feel particularly bound by that arcane formulation, especially given China's actions in the South China Sea and its inaction on North Korea, observers went ballistic and predicted that China would do the same, perhaps literally.  Who was this untutored president to upset forty years of delicate diplomatic balancing and nuance?  Even his Cabinet appointees were stirring the national security mix unnecessarily with their talk of halting China's aggressive maritime moves.

Illustrating how badly U.S.-China relations had deteriorated by those standards in just two weeks of the new administration, Xi Jinping refused to make a congratulatory call to President Trump until he walked back his One China comment. There was a pervasive sense that this unpredictable and pugnacious American president was leading the country into dark and troubled waters.

The narrative suddenly changed when Chinese and American officials worked quietly behind the scenes to arrange a Trump-Xi telephone call.  The president would pay verbal respect to the One China policy after all and Xi would deign to speak with him.  Now the talk was all about presidential capitulation and provocation through weakness. 

The new story line was that the unsophisticated American president had been outmaneuvered and embarrassed by the wily Chinese leader.  After all his tough talk, his bluff had been called, and he retreated under subtle Chinese pressure.  Having restored the One China policy he had repudiated only a few days before, he would now be susceptible to Chinese assertiveness on a range of other issues. 

Moreover, China would not be the only hostile ruler eager to take advantage of this new American vulnerability.  It could even be argued that North Korea's latest missile launches be a direct consequence.  Having been held in check for fear of what the erratic new U.S. president might do, his "caving" on One China convinced Beijing to give Pyongyang a green light to fire away.

Ready comparisons were made to earlier tough-talking presidential candidates like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, and the prime example, Richard Nixon himself, softening their anti-China lines once in office.

However, conventional wisdom may have misjudged the situation yet again. It is possible that the initial Trump disparagement of "One China" was predicated on Beijing's widely-disseminated One China principle that Taiwan is “part of China.”  The President may have reasonably considered that a  foolish notion since he had just spoken directly to the President of Taiwan herself.  When he was fully informed that Washington's One China policy is, in fact, different, that it is agnostic on the sovereignty question and leaves it to the parties to resolve it peacefully, he could afford to be comfortable giving Xi that illusory concession for now. 

This thesis is not far-fetched, given the media's complete misunderstanding of the nuances on the Taiwan question.  When CNN's Fredricka Whitfield interviewed me on December 3, she prefaced her first question by stating: "The U.S. does not formally recognize Taiwan as an independent state and backs Beijing's claim that Taiwan is a part of China."  I took the opportunity to state the actual U.S. position (hopefully politely).  But the record did not stay corrected for long at CNN; in recent days, both Wolf Blitzer and Jake Tapper have repeated the error, and they are far from alone--BBC just did it as well. 

In any event, it is worth reviewing the Trump bidding up to now.  The two Taiwan initiatives that angered the Chinese and directly unsettled the status quo were (a) the Tsai talk and (b) the One China disavowal.  He has now presumably withdrawn the latter, but he cannot undo the former and what it implies for closer U.S.-Taiwan ties.  And, from a purely deal-making perspective, Xi now owes the President for giving up some face.

The One China, Taiwan, bargaining chip has been played; we wait to see what it won for the U.S. in the South China Sea and on North Korea.  If the results are not satisfactory the chip can always be played again in a ratcheting process that incrementally advances Taiwan's international status.

The Trump scenario could be seen as an imitation of Deng Xiaoping's strategic elaboration of Mao Zedong's thought: two steps forward, one step back.  And, in this case, even the step back on One China can easily be reversed again. Moreover, the other warnings to China, on the South China Sea and North Korea, remain on the table. 

Granted the Tillerson threat to block Chinese access to its militarized manmade islands was subsequently modulated to specify "contingencies" in times of potential conflict.  However, with regular, and serious, Freedom of Navigation Operations likely under this administration, it is not difficult to imagine another incident where Chinese ships or planes harass or interfere with normal, lawful U.S. operations and a confrontation develops.  Neutralizing China's new military assets in the region could be one of the U.S. Navy's first defensive tasks.  China is now on notice.

Moreover, nothing in the Trump-Xi conversation that has been made public so far precludes stronger U.S. pressure on Beijing to get its totally dependent North Korean ally in line on its nuclear and missile programs, especially after the latest tests.  The available U.S. measures available against China itself include secondary sanctions on Chinese governmental and commercial entities doing business with North Korea, tools that have only been used sporadically and ineffectually so far.

In addition, it is time for a major strategic communications program through Radio Free Asia and Voice of America directed at the Chinese population publicizing North Korea's atrocious human rights behavior and reckless nuclear and missile and specifying the Chinese Communist Party as its primary, almost exclusive, enabler.

China's Communist leadership needs to be named and shamed for its role in the destabilization of the region and the dehumanization of the North Korean population. The self-respecting Chinese people are proud of their skyscrapers and Olympic hosting.  But, when fully informed of Pyongyang's transgressions, they will not happily countenance having their national reputation or their resources identified with that odious regime.

Whether any of these U.S. actions are taken will determine which of the two narratives, bumbling, humiliating backdown or astute long-run strategy, more accurately describes the Trump administration's strategic posture.  And it will become clear sooner rather than later now that Kim Jong Un has issued his own challenge to the new president.

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