By Clifford A. Kiracofe (The author is a former senior professional staff member of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and writes on international relations)
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump blew up a tempest by answering a phone call from Taiwan’s leader Tsai Ing-wen. Washington is abuzz and diplomats in world capitals have raised eyebrows. Beijing is cool, calm, and collected in its diplomatic response. Tempest in a tea pot?
Trump is not yet the president of the United States and he will not be until his inauguration on January 20, 2017. So whatever he says until then has no official weight or effect.
The White House was on top of the situation and very clearly expressed that the United States had not changed its “longstanding” policy on the Taiwan issue from previous administrations. It reinforced its firm commitment of successive administrations to the various diplomatic understandings known as the Three Communiqués, which undergird Washington’s official core One China policy.
China-U.S. relations since former President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing in 1972 have been nuanced with some rough edges at times. But effective professional diplomacy can resolve the problems, leading to mutual advantage and win-win outcomes. Core understanding must be observed to protect the stability of the relationship.
New to politics and to international diplomacy, Trump’s gaffe is clearly a mistake of the first order. But it appears to be a mistake caused by incompetent staff as well as by the semi-chaos of the transition.
Some, however, believe it was designed to undermine Trump’s stated goal of improving and moving forward relations with major powers. The phone call occurred just a few hours after former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger met in Beijing with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Observers had speculated that Kissinger was bringing a friendly and constructive message from Trump, who met the former secretary just two weeks prior to the phone call. They now wonder whether the timing of the call was designed to sand bag Kissinger and undermine Trump’s stated foreign policy goals.
Disarray in the transition
President-elect Trump, having passed successfully through the campaign phase, is now in his transition phase. This will end on January 20 next year, when he is sworn into office.
The current transition phase has been unusually bumpy, since Trump’s first team was shown the door and a new one, headed by none other than the Vice-President elect Mike Pence, was put into place. This reorganization had to start over, thus delaying the formation of a coherent team with a consistent message.
The chaotic situation led to attempts by various Neoconservative and Cold War hawks to penetrate his foreign policy and national security team. Behind the scenes there has been a brawl between those loyal to Trump’s stated vision of positive change in foreign policy and those who want to perpetuate hegemonic strategy.
So those supporting Trump’s stated vision have bent every effort to block the hawks from getting on board team Trump. But bad actors and bad advice have evidently slipped through as the Taiwan tizzy demonstrates.
The brawl behind the scenes is so fierce that Trump has not had the time to pick the Secretary of State. How is he supposed to have a coherent foreign policy?
So far, reports from Taiwan claim that the phone call was staged in advance by one or more Trump campaign staffers.
No U.S. president has officially entertained such a call in four decades because it is considered a gross breach of diplomatic procedure. Taiwan is recognized in the international community and by the United Nations to be part of China in a strict One China sense. It has a status, one might say, akin to Hawaii, distant islands from the U.S. mainland that form a state within the union.
Hawks in the Trump campaign
Neoconservatives and assorted Cold War hawks, however, are intimately linked to the Taiwan lobby in Washington. The lobby not only influences various politicians, but also makes significant contributions to certain think tanks which, in turn, produce pro-Taiwan and anti-Chinese mainland policy papers for the politicians to lean on.
The Taiwan lobby, which supported the “nationalists” in Taiwan, dates back to the early Cold War years when it was known as the “China Lobby.” After many decades, the lobby is well entrenched in Washington today and influences many Congressional politicians.
Trump’s gaffe was initially reported in the Taiwanese press to have been prepared by Stephen Yates. He is a businessman and consultant, but served as a top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney (2001-05) during the George W. Bush years. Cheney surrounded himself with a team of Neoconservatives and Cold War hawks of which Yates seems to have been an ardent member.
How Yates insinuated himself into the entourage at Trump Tower has yet to be fully revealed. However, initial reports say that he was the Asia advisor to Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York and a presidential candidate. When Trump became the chosen candidate it appears that Yates slid over to his team to become an Asia advisor and stayed on in the transition phase.
Yates has vigorously denied involvement with the phone call. Undoubtedly, Yates was able to penetrate Trump’s team through his connection to the Heritage Foundation, a hawkish Republican think tank in Washington D.C. known for its Cold War antagonism toward Russia and China.
But other well-known China hawks advise Trump. Michael Pillsbury, a leading American China scholar, is said to be an important advisor to the president-elect. Pillsbury has close relations with Congressional hawks and with the Pentagon. Just last week, he met in Washington with visiting delegations of Chinese scholars.
Other sources report that John Bolton, the abrasive U.S. Ambassador to the UN (2005-06) under the Bush-Cheney administration, may have had a hand in the phone call. He has been named as a potential Secretary of State. The hawkish Bolton penned an op-ed in January in the Wall Street Journal calling for a more proactive pro-Taiwan policy, while he was reportedly at Trump Tower the day of the phone call.
Whatever the situation may be, there are a number of hawkish “China experts” trying to penetrate the Trump transition so as to land a job in the coming administration. Of more importance is that some leading Congressional Republicans have spoken out in favor of the phone call. As ardent supporters of Taiwan they quickly endorsed Trump’s move.
Tempest in a tea pot?
Does the call represent a signal that Trump will drastically alter four decades of U.S. policy regarding China? That remains to be seen, but incompetent staff working within a chaotic transition may be the real explanation for the mistake.
The Trump transition team said it had established liaisons with various key U.S. government departments and agencies. But it is apparent that the White House, the professional diplomats at the State Department, and the intelligence community were not consulted for advice on issues relating to Taiwan and the phone call. Had Trump’s staff done so in a competent manner the reckless and counterproductive incident could have been rejected out of hand.
Trump’s spokespeople attempted to defend him by claiming he had been fully briefed about Taiwan. But, the question is by whom, if not by appropriate government officials?
What can be concluded from this Taiwan tempest is that team Trump must get its foreign policy and national security act together in short order. There are a number of serious veteran China experts who can be called upon for solid advice; retired ambassadors with vast experience such as Charles Freeman and Stapleton Roy come to mind. To his credit, Trump got off to a good start by taking the time to consult Kissinger.
President-elect Trump has to call on the wisdom of the “old China hands” of the diplomatic corps for sound advice. The Neoconservatives and Cold War hawks must be shown the door before Trump’s inauguration if he is to realize his stated goal of a new constructive and innovative foreign policy. Quiet diplomacy, prudence, and discretion are required. Megaphone diplomacy and Hollywood style antics must be rejected.