President-elect Donald Trump has a reputation for being disruptive. But it was still surprising that he chose to break with convention and speak directly to Tsai Ing-wen, the President of the Republic of China (ROC) in Taiwan, despite the fact that the United States withdrew its official diplomatic recognition of the ROC in 1979 as a precondition for establishing diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
The call took place just hours after former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who brokered the deal that led to the establishment of diplomatic relations with the PRC, spoke with President Xi Jinping in Beijing. Kissinger met with President-elect Trump shortly after the election. The Chinese press reported that Kissinger told Xi he wanted to “play a positive role in enhancing communications between the two countries.” It would not be unreasonable for the Chinese leadership to assume that Dr. Kissinger was carrying a message from the US president-elect. Did Kissinger know Trump would speak with Tsai? Was he there to explain it to Xi? Or was Kissinger unaware that Trump would be shaking the foundation of the US relationship with China while the US diplomat who laid its cornerstone was in Beijing?
If Kissinger was out-of-the-loop on Trump’s decision to take the call, and did not warn Xi it was coming when they met, Trump may have shattered the Chinese leadership’s faith in Kissinger’s ability to continue to influence the course of US-China relations.
And that may not have been an accident.
The Taipei Times reported that Trump’s conversation with Tsai was arranged while Stephen Yates, who served in the White House as Deputy Assistant to the Vice President for National Security Affairs under Dick Cheney, was preparing to travel to Taipei to meet with ROC Minister of Foreign Affairs David Lee (李大維) and National Security Council Secretary-General Joseph Wu (吳釗燮). Yates was an advocate for better US treatment of the ROC government when he worked for the Heritage Foundation and is reportedly being considered for an appointment in the Trump administration.
It is difficult to know if Mr. Trump planned this interestingly choreographed set of events with the intention of undermining Dr. Kissinger and disrupting the US relationship with China. It is possible that Mr. Trump did not know Dr. Kissinger was in Beijing or didn’t understand the implications of the call. It is also possible that some members of Mr. Trump’s transition team decided to “go rogue” in an effort to advance their own agenda while the president-elect’s attentions are focused elsewhere.
Reporters should follow up with Dr. Kissinger, the President-elect and his transition team to clarify exactly how and why the US president-elect came to speak with ROC President Tsai. The Chinese leadership needs to be clear about Mr. Trump’s intentions. So does the American public, not to mention anyone considering taking a job in the Trump administration, especially Mr. Romney or General Mattis. Any perceived change in US policy on the status of the ROC government in Taiwan brings with it an appreciable risk of war, as the veteran Chinese diplomat Sha Zukang reminded an audience of US China-watchers earlier this fall.
UCS’s “China Transition Watch” is a series of occasional posts that discusses how actions and statements during the Trump transition may affect US-China relations. While not intended to be comprehensive, the goal of the series is to provide insight on key issues.