Donald Trump's decision to speak to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has left almost everyone befuddled. Was it a deliberate decision or was the US president-elect demonstrating his colossal ignorance of international affairs?
The Taipei Times recalled that "Trump reportedly agreed to the call, which was arranged by his Taiwan friendly campaign staff after his aides briefed him regarding Taiwan and the situation in the Taiwan Straits". If this story is accurate, then this wasn't an impromptu call at all, nor was it done in a fit of absent-mindedness.
It is reported that John Bolton, the former US representative to the UN, visited Trump the Friday before the call for undisclosed reasons. Bolton is known for his extreme right-wing views. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed published in January 2016, he called for the eventual establishment of diplomatic relations with Taiwan. There are also reports that the Trump family is interested in a stake in the lucrative Taoyuan Aerotropolis project.
This may have been the first time that a US president or president-elect has spoken on record to a Taiwanese leader since the normalisation of relations with China in 1979, but to be fair, even president-elect Reagan had invited senior Taiwanese leaders to his inaugural in 1981. Then as now the Chinese were livid.
In reacting to Trump's call, the Chinese leadership had two choices - play down the incident as trivial and of no consequence, or escalate matters. The Chinese chose the first option. Foreign Minister Wang Yi dismissed the call as the "Taiwanese side engaging in petty action", although his ministry was rattled enough to lodge "stern representations" with the "relevant US side". By blaming the Taiwanese exclusively, the Chinese clearly intended to not rile the incoming president just yet. The well- known Chinese strategist Shen Dengli of Fudan University appeared to absolve the Americans of culpability by saying the Chinese can hardly object to a "private" citizen (Trump) talking to the Taiwanese leader.
But the Chinese leadership was clearly flustered by what Trump had done, and started watching with increasing trepidation what he might do after assuming the presidency. They didn't have to wait long. On Sunday evening, Trump went on Twitter: "Did China ask us if it was OK to carry out a number of actions such as build up disputed islands in the South China Sea or take hurtful measures to the United States." Once again, the Chinese leadership was caught flat-footed.
One of the most prescient and authoritative observations on the Chinese leadership's thinking on Trump was recently articulated by Jin Keyu, who teaches at the London School of Economics. She happens to be the daughter of Jin Liqun, the president of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Jin Liqun is China's former vice minister of finance and is considered to be one of President Xi Jinping's closest economic advisers. According to Jin Keyu, Beijing's expectations of Trump are as follows:
The Chinese leadership is neutral on Trump's victory. They have noted that he posted a video of his grand-daughter reciting a poem in Mandarin. They do not expect Trump to follow through on his campaign rhetoric regarding climate change - he described it as a "hoax cooked up by China" - or the imposition of 45% duty on Chinese goods imported into the US. Thus, the Chinese leadership feels that Trump's campaign rhetoric on economic matters bears little relation to reality.
But what is the reality? According to the Chinese, if 45% imposts are put on Chinese imports this is what will happen. One, non-availability of inexpensive Chinese goods would no longer put down ward pressure on prices which has been a boon for low income households, thus effectively raising their purchasing power. Two, prices in the US would rise undermining consumption, impeding economic growth and exacerbating inequality. Three, low-cost manufacturing would in any case not go back to the US, but would gravitate to countries such as Vietnam and Bangladesh that have even lower labour costs than China.
China is one of the largest purchasers of US treasury bonds and continues to finance American consumption and investment. The US should not rule out that the Chinese are capable of financing Trump's proposed large infrastructure projects, thus reducing pressure on the US budget. Thus the anticipation is that there will not be much change in US economic policy.
It is in the strategic and political area that the Chinese leadership feels that Trump is far from inconsequential. He is no ordinary American president. He should be taken seriously though not literally, to borrow a phrase from Salena Zito of The Atlantic. That Trump wishes to put "America First" means that so far he has shown little interest in the South China Sea dispute. And China would welcome less American involvement in Asia.
The Chinese have noted that Trump has assured both South Korean and Japanese leaders that the US commitment to their security would continue and he has not raised the campaign rhetoric of asking both South Korea and Japan to pay "more" for US bases. The Chinese leadership does not want any instability in Northeast Asia.
The Chinese leadership is aware of what Trump has said about Russia and President Vladimir Putin. If Trump mends fences with Russia, it would mean that there would be "subtle" changes in Sino-Russian relations.
Finally, Jin Keyu says that the Chinese leadership is focused on what it considers really important : the absolute need for a cooperative relationship with the incoming Trump Administration.