U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke on the phone on February 9 for the first time since Mr. Trump’s inauguration, and Trump’s contentious conversation with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in December. Trump’s Taiwan call prompted outcry and debate, but he doubled-down on his campaign tough talk, and questioned the U.S. stance on the One-China policy. But in his Thursday phone call with Xi, Mr. Trump did an about-face and stated the U.S. will honor the One-China policy. At the behest of the Chinese leader, Trump went back on his words, revealing himself to be a paper tiger.
When Mr. Trump spoke to the Taiwanese leader on December 2 nearly a month after his surprise electoral victory, it marked a break in over forty years of U.S. protocol in Taiwanese relations. The call immediately angered the Chinese, who in response filed a formal protest with Washington and reiterated its position on the One-China policy. Many experts and China watchers were confounded by Mr. Trump’s actions, given how highly sensitive in nature the issue is to Beijing, and with the new administration still in its precarious transition stage.
Trump, however, doubled-down on his stance, stating the U.S. should not be beholden to the One-China policy or kowtow to Beijing, further suggesting One-China was open to debate, and baring some sort of concession from Beijing, the policy was up for negotiation. This statement incensed China, and put Mr. Xi on his heels.
As a new president assessing old policy, Mr. Trump has every right to take a fresh look at One-China, review the U.S.’s stance towards Taiwan, and make changes he sees fit. However, making Taiwan a bargaining chip in any deal with China is not the way to go about it. In fact, it showed a fundamental lack of understanding of the One-China issue on the part of Trump’s transition team.
The Taiwan issue is nonnegotiable for Beijing, and an issue that does not need any pointless provocation. Taiwan can’t be used to squeeze Beijing for incentives or deals relating to the South China Sea or trade that could benefit the U.S. Mr. Trump would have been wise to stick to Washington’s status quo on Taiwan, at least until his administration officially began and he had his foreign policy team in place.
Instead, with his early hardline stance on China and the Taiwan issue, Trump put himself in a no win situation. By honoring the One-China policy at the request of President Xi during their call, Trump backed down without making any deal or acquiring any incentives from Xi. It is possible that Trump was able to get some sort of concession from Xi during the call that has yet to be announced for his abrupt change of stance. Conversely, Trump may have spent his negotiating capital just to get Xi on the phone.
Trump showed he is a paper tiger president. He was unable to stand up to his erstwhile claims when directly dealing with another world leader. He showed he can be manipulated by a more experienced head of state who better understands the nuances of diplomacy. Unlike the business dealings he is used to, foreign policy is not a zero-sum game.
The world witnessed for the first time how President Trump would handle his brand of talk-big diplomacy, and he was incapable backing his own position. Trump lost this round to Xi, but there will be many more opportunities for productive interactions between the two states. But Trump squandered some bargaining power going forward, and Xi was able to turn the tables of the relationship in China’s favor for the time being.
While Trump displayed he hasn’t yet mastered the art of diplomacy, his reversal on One-China puts U.S.-China relations back on sturdier ground. For now, keeping the status quo with the U.S.’s historic One-China policy stance is the best course of action for both nations. Having an engaging and open relationship with China paves the way for greater relations down the road when negotiations will again heat up over the numerous issues sure to face the two countries in the next four years. This is the China policy the U.S. needed all along from a young administration, but the unnecessary route Mr. Trump took to get back to where he started cost him - and the U.S. - negotiating leverage.
Trump put the U.S. in a precarious position moving forward with China and Xi. His talk-big and walk-back approach to diplomacy is aimless and lacks foresight. Prudence would have been wise for Trump’s young administration, and consulting with China experts and the State Department before making any statement on the issue could have helped prevent any row in U.S.-China relations. While U.S.-China relations seem to be back on track after the latest call, in the future Mr. Trump would be well advised to use his talk-big approach more selectively – next time he may not be able to walk-back his words to where he began.