Shaun Rein is the founder of the China Market Research Group (CMR) and author of “The End of Cheap China” and “The End of Copycat China.” The views expressed here are his own.
Donald Trump’s call with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen upended 40 years of US foreign policy. Ever since 1979, America has acknowledged a One-China policy and terminated formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
No American president, cautious of provoking China, has spoken with the island’s president since then.
Even President Ronald Reagan, stalwart defender of democracy and opponent of communism, refused to cross any red line by speaking with the president of Taiwan.
Concerns by foreign policy experts are that the call indicates Trump is a bumbling, rank amateur when it comes to foreign policy, who hasn’t consulted with the State Department prior to calls with foreign leaders, and will hurt American prestige at best, or, at worst, is a loose cannon that is leading America to war with China.
In response to critics of his call, Trump has forcefully and quickly pushed back, with a series of tweets Sunday singling out China’s currency policy and military posturing in the South China Sea.
Brilliant move with little downside
The reality is that Trump’s move to speak on the phone with President Tsai is brilliant and has little downside.
With a simple 10-minute phone call, rather than selling billions of arms to Taiwan, Trump shows American strength in the Asia-Pacific region and may well actually making the region safer.
Unlike President Barack Obama and his Asia pivot policy, which the Chinese have generally ignored – as evidenced by their continued reclamation of land in the South China Sea – they are now going to pause and rethink all of their strategies to take Trump seriously.
Nothing is more sacred to Beijing than one-party rule and sovereignty over land and ocean that China considers its own. Everything else is open to negotiation.
Trump has not said that he doesn’t acknowledge the One-China policy, nor is he the actual president yet.
By having a call now before he is sworn in, he will have additional leverage to negotiate with China on more core American interests than the matter of Taiwan - for instance, open shipping lanes in the South China Sea, reduced cybersecurity risks emanating from China, and less protectionism and unfair competition for American business interests in China.
China’s muted response to the phone call shows Trump’s strategy.
Instead of launching military maneuvers as many American foreign policy experts feared, the Chinese Foreign Ministry simply lodged a complaint with the US.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the US must not disrupt “the One-China policy [which] is the cornerstone of a healthy China-US relationship.”
Many China watchers thought China would react militarily. But China does not want to risk war.
In many ways China is like a paper tiger.
It is very good at bullying and shouting to get what it wants and to see how far it can push other nations, but it is not likely to risk a full-out war at this stage.
It will react militarily only if forced – such as if Trump actually stops acknowledging the One-China policy.
Chinese state media downplayed the call and said that Trump is not yet president. Instead, state media unleashed their fury on President Tsai, whom they argue is intentionally trying to create war.
Rather than launching serious military exercises aimed at America, it is more likely that China would implement severe economic sanctions and cause trade problems with Taiwan to punish them economically.
China is currently doing the same thing with South Korea ever since it announced that it will place THAAD missile defense system on its shores.
The Chinese government is reducing the number of tour groups to South Korea; movie stars from that country have been banned from performing in China; and, recently, the giant conglomerate Lotte has had unprecedented mass audits across the country.
China previously banned Norwegian salmon after the Nobel Peace Prize was given to dissident Liu Xiaobo, and reduced trade with Mongolia after it met with the Dalai Lama.
Status quo no more?
Other countries in the region only have to see the wrath of China if they oppose its strategic interests, and see the benefits if they get closer to Beijing politically.
The recent warming of ties between China, the Philippines, and Malaysia, which are getting billions of low interest loans and infrastructure investment, show Asian nations the benefits of allying with Beijing over Washington.
Trump’s call with President Tsai is a simple and cheap way to let other nations know that American power is back and that Trump will look after US interests, even if that means changing the status quo.
And frankly, the status quo has not made the world a safer place in recent decades.