TOKYO -- U.S. President-elect Donald Trump recently held a historic 12-minute telephone conversation with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen.
Trump called Tsai "president" and congratulated her on assuming the leadership of Taiwan during the conversation. He later said on Twitter, "The President of Taiwan CALLED ME today to wish me congratulations on winning the presidency. Thank you!"
It was the first known conversation between a U.S. president or president-elect and the leader of Taiwan since the U.S. established official diplomatic ties with China and severed ties with the island in 1979. The phone chat was unexpectedly disclosed by both Trump and Tsai.
In China, the call is seen as a big blunder by Beijing, which failed to forestall the conversation despite keeping a close watch on Taiwan. The Chinese government appears to have been caught off guard by the development, which had been unthinkable under the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama.
The Trump team maintains that it has been assured of close ties between the U.S. and China in the areas of economy, politics and security. While the conversation with Tsai drew criticism, Trump responded on Twitter, "Interesting how the U.S. sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call."
As part of its basic strategy against Taiwan, China has been gradually narrowing the island's range of international participation on a long-term basis. For example, Taiwan was recently shut out of the International Civil Aviation Organization under pressure from China.
But Trump has thrown a wrench into China's strategy. Coming before his assumption of office, the call with Tsai was carefully timed to not upset the conventional mechanisms of U.S.-China relations. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reportedly met Tsai in Tokyo before the Taiwanese presidential election, but Trump proved more shrewd.
China should be outraged by Trump's unexpected move. Intriguingly, however, its reaction has been extremely weak, compared with in the past.
China's official reaction was a statement by Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who said the telephone call was a "little trick" by Taiwan that will not change the "One China" principle that has been accepted by the international community. Coming in response to a question at a press conference on the day after the Trump-Tsai chat, the remark was unusual in that it criticized Tsai and stressed China's position but did not criticize Trump.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger offers a clue about how to understand China's enigmatic reaction. The 93-year-old diplomatic strategist visited Beijing before the controversial call and gave advice to Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is struggling with how to deal with Trump. Xi listened attentively to Kissinger.
In 1971, Kissinger, as an aide to then-U.S. President Richard Nixon, visited China on a secret mission. He dropped out of sight in Pakistan and flew over the Himalayas to arrive in Beijing. The well-wrought diplomatic drama resulted in the U.S. severing its official ties with Taiwan and establishing ties with China. Kissinger has since been treated respectfully by China as an "old friend of the Chinese people."
Kissinger met Trump at the Trump Tower building in New York on Nov. 17. According to people concerned with U.S.-China relations, Trump, euphoric after his presidential election victory, told Kissinger firmly that he would basically deliver on his campaign pledges.
This time, Kissinger visited China at the invitation of the Chinese People's Institute of Foreign Affairs, which was founded in 1949 when the People's Republic of China was established. Zhou Enlai, who was the first prime minister of communist China and was also in charge of its diplomacy, founded the institute in a bid to increase the number of pro-China countries, as well as inner circles in nations that opposed the newly established communist state. Xi met Kissinger in Beijing last Friday.
On the day before the Kissinger-Xi meeting, Wang Qishan, who spearheads the Chinese president's anti-corruption campaign, met the veteran American diplomat, although he is not in any official position to hold such a meeting. It was extremely unusual for two members of China's top echelon to meet an aged American political expert for two days running.
But China had its reasons. Wang had been a bridge between China and the U.S. until 2013, through his role as deputy premier in charge of economic and financial affairs. Having met on various occasions, Kissinger and Wang remain casual friends, a Chinese diplomatic source said.
Wang firmly held Kissinger's right hand to support him and smilingly led him to a conference table. Trusted by Xi, Wang was a key player in Kissinger's visit and listened to his advice on how to deal with Trump, laying the groundwork for the Xi-Kissinger meeting.
Kissinger told Xi and Wang that China should take a "cooperative" stance toward the U.S. under Trump, according to a diplomatic source with connections in both the U.S. and China. Kissinger advised China to avoid confronting Trump from the beginning, because he is unpredictable and tough toward China.
An internet news site under the umbrella of the Beijing Daily, the official newspaper of the Beijing Municipal Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, said Kissinger had visited China on a "special mission." The report, amid China's strict news censorship regime, had a political meaning.
Xi talked with Trump by phone on Nov. 14, and the news was widely covered by Chinese media organizations, raising expectations in China of amicable bilateral relations. These expectations were severely upset by the Trump-Tsai chat. Xi, who has refused to treat Tsai as an equal in negotiations, completely lost face.
Trump stepped up his attack on China. On Sunday, he asked rhetorically on Twitter whether China had asked for U.S. approval to build "a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea," adding, "I don't think so!" It was the first time since his election victory that Trump had criticized China for the military buildup.
Trump increased his pressure on the economic front as well. "Did China ask us if it was OK to devalue their currency (making it hard for our companies to compete), heavily tax our products going into their country (the U.S. does not tax them)?" he also wrote on Twitter.
Despite the verbal attacks, Xi is maintaining a wait-and-see stance, as advised by Kissinger. In fact, the Chinese Foreign Ministry took an extremely discreet approach. "We will not speculate on what motivates President-elect Trump and his team," a spokesperson for the ministry said. China will react only to specific policies or actions, the spokesperson added.
After returning to the U.S., Kissinger praised the Chinese leadership's composed reaction to the Trump-Tsai conversation, speaking at an event held on Monday by the National Committee on United States-China Relations. China's reaction is highly admirable and reflects the Chinese leadership's resolve to determine whether coolheaded dialogue is possible, he said, apparently confirming Beijing's acceptance of his advice.
Afraid of Trump
Nevertheless, the unusually weak-kneed response by Xi and Wang Yi, the foreign minister, betrays their difficulty in figuring out China's stance toward Trump. Xi must be thinking that Hillary Clinton would have been less troublesome, had she been elected president.
Xi is afraid of Trump because of his unpredictability, according to a source familiar with the inner circles of China's diplomacy. He is busy collecting information on Trump from Chinese embassies abroad and domestic research institutes, and reviewing strategies toward the U.S.
Wang Yi and other people concerned are being blamed for failing to prevent the Trump-Tsai phone call, the source said. The criticism is especially strong from people close to Xi, who fear that complaints may increase from within about the Chinese leader being outsmarted by Tsai.
The source's view suggests that the question of Taiwan may be used as a tool in the intense power struggle going on in China. Taiwan is an extremely sensitive issue in China, which calls it a "core" interest. Although Tsai's approval rating in Taiwan has dropped since she took office in May, it may rise again thanks to the diplomatic victory she scored through her conversation with Trump.
Xi's power base is not rock solid, despite his recent elevation to the exalted title of "core leader." He still needs to crack down on political rivals through his anti-corruption campaign, led by Wang Qishan. Rivals see Xi's Taiwan blunder as a chance to exert pressure on him.
The biggest event for China in the coming year will be changes to the Communist Party's leadership at its convention. As the question of Taiwan may affect the power struggles leading up to the convention, Xi cannot afford to be idle.