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Trump in the Taiwan China shop

Peter Lee December 4, 2016 2:43 AM (UTC+8)
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News of the Trump/Tsai Ing-wen phone convo exploded into the mediasphere on Friday night and learned and unlearned predictions of dire consequences raged for a good four hours until the PRC government issued an anodyne statement that characterized the phone call as “a petty trick” by Taiwan.

By placing the onus on Taiwan, the PRC was indulging Trump’s tweeted version of events, which is that Tsai had called him, not the other way around.  Awkwardly, original reports out of Taiwan had characterized the phone call as initiated by Trump through the good offices of Stephen Yates, a pro-Taiwan hardliner in the Republican Party.

The incident provided ample grist for the Trump outrage mill, feeding the preferred liberal/Beltway narrative that Trump is either surpassingly maladroit in the fine arts of governance, certifiably insane, or venally exploiting his (soon to be occupied, if the recount doesn’t scupper him) office to advance plans for a hotel complex in Taiyuan, in any case unfit for office The End.

For some interesting reason, there has been little speculation on the motives or wisdom of Tsai Ing-wen, a quite canny politician, in accepting (version 1) or initiating (version 2) this supposedly reckless telephone conversation. Judging by an account in the Taipei Times, the call was a planned event developed by both sides and not an occasion of one side impetuously drunk-dialing the other. Tsai’s office issued a readout of the ten-minute call, noting that her national security advisor was also present.

Apparently Tsai is going through a rough patch, approval-ratings-wise,  and perhaps thought of a phone call with Donald Trump might be a neat political game-changer.

My take is not too alarmist.  Trump stirred the Taiwan pot.  Not necessarily a bad thing or a good thing.  Maybe nothing. It’s a phone call.

Taiwan indeed is regarded as a red line, since the United States honors the Shanghai Communiques and the One China policy and ostentatiously avoids infringing on the integrity of China i.e. encouraging Taiwan independence, even as the US engages in various other anti-PRC shenanigans throughout East Asia and for that matter stating a commitment to defend Taiwan against aggression under the Taiwan Relations Act and, indeed, selling arms to Taiwan.

The PRC is quite fanatical about restricting, well extinguishing any international recognition of Taiwan as a sovereign state and Trump, by referring to Tsai as the president of Taiwan, gave the PRC ample grounds for offense.

But a realist as well as idealistic case can be made for standing up for Taiwan’s liberal democracy and its de facto independence.  A key competitor for influence with America inside Taiwan is not just the PRC — it’s Japan, with which Taiwan in general and the DPP in particular share a close and powerful affinity.  By sticking his oar in the Taiwan situation, Trump could potentially make the United States a more active and positive actor in Taiwan’s politics and diplomacy and forestall its drift into the Japanese sphere of influence.

The most interesting fallout from L’Affaire phonecall was, for me, the signs that Cheney neocons are taking position at Trump’s elbows, apparently jostling aside the Kurt Campbell pivoteers as maestros of Trump’s anti-China policy.

Reporting on Trump’s foreign policy staffing is notoriously unreliable, but the names bandied about include John Bolton and Michael Pillsbury.  And there’s Stephen Yates, already mentioned above.

The generous characterization of the relationship between Taiwan and John Bolton, the notorious mustachio’d regime-change testicle-twisting stapler-flinging uber-hawk who represented the US at the United Nations under George W. Bush, is “it runs deep”.

Less charitably, Bolton took money from a notorious KMT slush fund to write pro-Taiwan articles without registering himself as a foreign lobbyist, thereby creating some definite if transitory awkwardness during his confirmation hearings.

Michael Pillsbury was, in the Bush years, the go-to alarmist on the Chinese military buildup at the Department of Defense, as well as a frequent source for China hawk (and Asia Times columnist!) Bill Gertz.  I expect that Pillsbury’s dire predictions about Chinese capabilities and intentions are more mainstream and less mocked now than they were back in 2006, when The Washington Monthly published a scathing profile of him as a serial sensationalizer and fantasist.

Stephen Yates, who was initially credited helping set up the Trump-Tsai call, was a key member of Dick Cheney’s inner circle.  Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff, Lawrence Wilkerson, an inveterate foe of the neocons, supplied the dish to Robert Dreyfuss at The American Prospect:

Two of the people most often encountered by Wilkerson were Cheney’s Asia hands, Stephen Yates and Samantha Ravich. Through them, the fulcrum of Cheney’s foreign policy — which linked energy, China, Iraq, Israel, and oil in the Middle East — can be traced. The nexus of those interrelated issues drives the OVP’s broad outlook.

Yates … had an important impact on Asia and Middle East policy. Says Wilkerson: “Generally Steve was quiet. But when there came a time for him to speak, the room grew very silent, and that did it. We weren’t going any further in that discussion item if Steve said that the vice president didn’t like it. And it didn’t take too long to understand that the real power in the room was sitting there from the vice president’s office.”

Today, Yates denied the Taipei Times report that he set up the phone call.  But he said he thought it was a good idea.  So there’s that.

It appears quite likely, therefore, that Trump is not winging his foreign policy based on how he’s digested his last taco bowl, but instead has chosen to surround himself with acolytes of Dick Cheney.

The defining characteristics of Cheneyite neocons included a contempt for transparency, consensus, and strict notions of legality, a love of virtuous conspiracies, and infatuation with the direct wielding of unilateral American military power.  Their signature legacies were the disastrous invasion of Iraq, torture, and Guantánamo.

The highly legalized, alliance-based soft power incrementalist approach to foreign affairs of the Obama administration was to a significant extent regarded as a repudiation of the brutal US cowboyism of the Bush/Cheney years.

If the Cheney revival does play out under Trump, his China policy will be in the hands of unilateralist hard-power neocons who scorn the painstaking legal parsing, coalition-building and soft-power incrementalism of the pivoteers.  They also, I will imagine, be eager to seek out opportunities to wield America’s military might in concert with the uniformed military personnel, like Michael Flynn, James Mattis, and possibly John Kelly, with whom Trump has decided to stock the White House security and defense apparatus.

I predict interesting times ahead for Kim Jong Un, since North Korea was a notorious target for neocon regime change shenanigans during the Bush administration, well, make that serial fiascos, and John Bolton probably feels he’s got some unfinished business up there.

As for Taiwan, the neocon history is, to put it mildly, interesting.

I daresay it is a little-known fact that during the George W. Bush administration, when PRC ability to project power across the Taiwan Strait, though growing, was still rather limited, anti-China hard-liners were encouraging Taiwan’s Chen Shuibian to declare independence, presumably on the theory that this would draw the PRC into a catastrophic confrontation with the United States and probably bring down the regime.

Lawrence Wilkerson told the story to The Hill in 2007:

“The Defense Department, with Feith, Cambone, Wolfowitz Rumsfeld, was dispatching a person to Taiwan every week … essentially to tell Chen Shui-bian … that independence was a good thing.”

Wilkerson said Powell would then dispatch his own envoy “right behind that guy, every time they sent somebody, to disabuse the entire Taiwanese national security apparatus of what they’d been told by the Defense Department.”

“This went on,” he said of the pro-independence efforts, “until George Bush weighed in and told Rumsfeld to cease and desist told him multiple times to re-establish military-to-military relations with China.”

Today things are a little different and how to fight a Taiwan war with a massively bulked up PRC military is a matter of anxious discussion in Washington.  The conventional deterrence façade is crumbling, there is, I hope, a deficit of enthusiasm for entering into a nuclear exchange, limited or otherwise, with the PRC, over Taiwan.  Shared, I expect, by Taiwan itself.

The Trump team may still be in thrall to the dream of exterminating Chinese Communism by severing its Middle East energy lifeline — the anti-Iran obsession of the current outfit probably harks back to the Cheney Clean Break strategy — but I expect they will find Taiwan considerably less eager to roll the dice with independence and help precipitate an existential crisis for the CCP.

Don’t expect Taiwan independence, in other words, but expect some Trump blame-fingering at the pivoteers for letting America’s window of military opportunity in the Taiwan Strait slide shut during the Obama era.

And there will be limited coddling of the PRC’s sensitivities when it comes to supporting Taiwan.

I think the old-school China hawks who are reportedly gathering around Trump will be of the opinion that it’s up to Taiwan to decide what risks it wants to take in the relationship, not for the United States to discourage it.  If Tsai wants to talk to the US president, good for her and to heck with China.  It’s her country and her neck. In fact, from their perspective, there’s no harm in encouraging Taiwan to push the envelope, and see how far it can take things in its dealings with the PRC and the United States.

And if the PRC wants to make something of it, well — in the immortal words of George W. Bush when he dared the Iraq insurgency to slug it out with the US occupying forces — “bring it.”

Peter Lee
Peter Lee runs the China Matters blog. He writes on the intersection of US policy with Asian and world affairs.
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