Donald Trump’s Chinese Puzzle

My earliest memory of American debates about China was watching candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon square off as they campaigned for President in 1960.

The anti-communist Chinese on the Island of Taiwan claimed the small islands of Quemoy and Matsu. The Peoples Republic of China on the mainland insisted they would take them back. American military experts said that those islands would be indefensible.

Kennedy agreed with those in the Eisenhower administration who wanted the Taiwanese government to back off from those islands rather than provoke a conflict that they would lose. Nixon appealed to those who were in no mood to give another inch to the international communist conspiracy.

Nixon accused Kennedy of drawing the line against defending Quemoy and Matsu and allowing communists to advance.

I have always opposed drawing a line. I have opposed drawing a line because I know that the moment you draw a line, that is an encouragement for the Communists to attack – to step up their blackmail and to force you into the war that none of us want.”

Richard Nixon, October 21, 1960

Kennedy responded:

I challenge you tonight to deny that the Administration has sent at least several missions to persuade Chiang Kai‑shek’s withdrawal from these islands.

John F. Kennedy, October 21, 1960

China has been an on and off controversy in American politics since before the parents of most Americans were born.

In my long-ago youth, black and white television was filled with panicked, angry charges from Republicans. Harry Truman and his little band of communist sympathizers had lost the largest country on earth, taking up most of the largest continent on earth.

In those days, Americans were scared of the world-wide Communist conspiracy. It was taken as a given that the quest for world domination was directed from the control room of the Politburo within the Kremlin. Since the love of freedom was known to be a universal part of the human experience, conservatives insisted it would only take a spark of hope to tear down the entire empire.

The sudden loss of China in 1949 was a shock. Republicans demanded to know who was responsible. Key experts in the State Department had warned that Mao Zedong was on the verge of victory. They advised officials to establish contact, to prepare to deal with Mao.

Conservatives attacked those China experts for advocating a soft approach to communist advances. Those experts on China whose urgent warnings had been ignored were attacked by conservatives as insufficiently firm.

So America’s most experienced experts on China were forced out of government.

Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson all maintained the uncomfortable position that there was only one government that could speak for China. That was the government precariously based on the island of Taiwan.

Taiwan and mainland China both considered the island as part of China. Both considered themselves to be the true government of China.

Then, in 1972, Richard Nixon did what had been thought to be the unthinkable. He went to China. The actual China, the one controlled by Chairman Mao.

I remember it as more than a visit. I had grown up in an America that saw communism as a monolith. It was one conspiracy dictated from Moscow, with the single objective of taking over the world. That was the primary reason for our involvement in Vietnam. We had to stop a communist takeover there to prevent a series of countries around the Pacific rim from falling like dominoes.

The Nixon visit was a recognition that many of our assumptions were wrong, and that much of our Southeast Asian policy was destructive to those we were ostensibly protecting, and harmful to our own nation. The Domino Theory that got us into Vietnam fell with a thud.

In fact, there was not a single worldwide monolithic conspiracy. There were many communisms, most of which were tied up with simple nationalism. Serious divisions existed between the Soviet Union and the Peoples Republic of China, divisions that frequently went to antagonism. We finally recognized that those divisions presented strategic opportunities. We stood a chance to achieve a peace through negotiation that had been impossible in war.

For a while, the United States maintained an informal sort of Two-China policy. Officially, we held that Taiwan was the government of all of China. But we negotiated a series of understandings with the mainland. It was awkward, but it worked, after a fashion.

In 1979, we went back to a One-China policy. This time, we recognized the Peoples Republic of China as the legitimate government of all of China, including Taiwan. Part of the backdoor understanding was that mainland China would make no move against little Taiwan.

Taiwan still considers itself the official government of all of China. Mainland China still considers Taiwan to be a renegade province. We still provide military assistance to that island, even while we recognize the Peoples Republic.

The conflict has gone from one of military force to a struggle for economic supremacy. There hasn’t been much news coverage. The overpaid youngsters who dominate the airwaves are less than thrilled with anything bordering on complexity. Trade negotiations and economic maneuvering are beyond them.

But the Obama administration has been orchestrating relationships that seem calculated to keep the benefits of the Pacific economic tide flowing in the direction of the United States and our trading partners. The immediate aim is to engage China in economic participation, but to cut off Chinese economic dominance. The longer term goal is winning a major American role over the next century.

A single telephone call seems unlikely to throw out the entire delicate balance that has kept the United States out of Iraq style, Vietnam-like conflicts around the pacific over the last 4 decades. But it may be a harbinger.

Donald Trump took a telephone call. From the President of Taiwan.

The initial reactions of bewilderment by Trump spokespeople and White House officials made it clear that none of them had been given advance warning.

This was followed by explanations by the President-Elect himself, not in person, but by tweet. Of course. Mr. Trump seemed perplexed by the public reaction. Hey, folks, I didn’t call the President of Taiwan. She called ME! He capitalized the word “ME.”

A short time later, conflicting reports came from those around the Trump team. The call had been planned. Stephen Yates, a former security official had arranged it. Well, no he didn’t.

Someone else made the arrangements. There were no arrangements, Taiwan had simply called Trump Tower and someone had put the call through.

Now word is former Senator Robert Dole, still disabled and barely capable of speaking, had orchestrated everything on behalf of the very clever Mr. Trump.

The story is still under development. The party line is still less of a party line than a series of party points trying to get coherently into a line.

But everyone on the Trump team is on board with whatever happened. It was definitely a careful plan, whatever careful plan it might have been. And it was brilliant, whoever planned it.

The shining incandescence of this stunning move has now become universal conservative narrative.

Marc Thiessen, in the Washington Post:

It was a deliberate move — and a brilliant one at that.

John Bolton on Fox News:

I do think it’s important that people understand the President of the United States should talk to whomever he wants if he thinks it’s in the interest of the United States. And nobody in Beijing gets to dictate who we talk to.

Mainstream press has begun to swing into line. It was a well planned, carefully calculated, move.

It’s just that nobody thought in advance to tell Trump spokespeople, or the White House, or the State Department.

Bits and pieces of evidence are presented. The Taiwanese government has picked up and supported the storyline of careful consideration of studied reasoning.

It could all be true. One liberal voice suggests just that.

Whether it’s meant just to shake up China; to act as leverage for a future bargain; or as a precursor to a policy change—well, that’s hard to say. But there was something behind it.

Kevin Drum, Mother Jones Magazine,   December 3, 2016


I have to believe it was deliberate.

December 2, 2016

Two common threads flow through all of the narratives.

First, we do believe, but we do not simply believe, this is all part of a larger plan, carefully deliberated, a considered calculation. We very much want to believe it, need to believe it. We hope, we have to hope, it is true.

And second, one major piece of evidence reassures us it is true. It was no accident. Right? No individual, certainly no team of policy makers about to take control of national government could stumble into such a brier patch through some accident. There is one thing proponents assure us that they know to a moral certitude:

Nobody, really nobody, could be that godawful stupid.



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6 thoughts on “Donald Trump’s Chinese Puzzle”

  1. Thanks for the historical background, and reporting some admiring comments from various sources, complimenting the president-elect on an astute move.

    Your careful analysis of the background then jumps to a non-sequitur:

    “Nobody, really nobody, could be that godawful stupid.”

    —implying if I don’t misunderstand you that it was a deliberate act from someone who is that godawful stupid.

    But for the benefit of those who have not prejudged Mr Trump’s astuteness, or lack of, I wish you could spell out why it is stupid, and your experience in international relations which can distinguish stupidity in that sphere from

    . . . shake up China; to act as leverage for a future bargain; or as a precursor to a policy change . . .

    Or would it be fairer to say it was a bold move, and that time will tell if it was foolhardy, beneficial or irrelevant?

    1. Thank you for your comment, Vincent, and please forgive my lack of clarity.

      The common thread going through many of the speculative analyses of the Trump-Taiwan communication begin with a premise:

      It had to have been pre-planned. It could not have been a major move motivated by impulse. Kevin Drum’s reasoning is not untypical. He begins with this:

      “I have to believe it was deliberate. Even Trump’s team isn’t so pig-ignorant that they’re unaware of our policy toward China and Taiwan.”

      1. Yes, I get that part. So who then is saying it’s godawful stupid? Is that also part of the common thread, or is it your own evaluation?

        1. Thank you again, Vincent.
          I find myself among those who accept that making a move with international implications would be “pig-ignorant” if it was done accidently, without knowledge and forethought.

          In this case, I find three things to be of special interest:

          • Those examining the plan need to justify their assumption that there exists a plan to examine.
          • That the main reason for believing there is indeed a plan is that only an idiot would make such a move without a plan.
          • That this assumption, that the incoming team is not composed of idiots, needs to be explicitly asserted.

          Again, I apologize for failing to make that clear.

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