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US vs. China: First Round to Trump

Walter Russell Mead

In his first presidential phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping, President Trump re-iterated the longstanding “One China” policy that he had earlier questioned with his provocative Taiwan call. The New York Times depicts the call as an ignominious climbdown from Trump:

The concession was clearly designed to put an end to an extended chill in the relationship between China and the United States. Mr. Xi, stung by Mr. Trump’s unorthodox telephone call with the president of Taiwan in December and his subsequent assertion that the United States might no longer abide by the One China policy, had not spoken to Mr. Trump since Nov. 14, the week after he was elected.

Administration officials concluded that Mr. Xi would take a call only if Mr. Trump publicly committed to upholding the 44-year-old policy, under which the United States recognized a single Chinese government in Beijing and severed its diplomatic ties with Taiwan. […]

For Mr. Trump, it was a significant reversal. In an interview with Fox News in December, he said the policy should be contingent on extracting concessions from Beijing.

The implicit framing of the Times story is clear enough: dumb Trump backpedals when his advisors are finally able to pound some facts into his tiny brain. Such a narrative is unsurprising given the media’s continual underestimation of Trump, and the proliferation of hysterical narratives charging Trump with treason, racism, or reckless inexperience.

What should not be lost in the non-stop uproar is this small reality: in the first round of exchanges between Trump and Xi, it is advantage Trump.

Why? The U.S. policy on China never changed; the One China policy has been in effect all through the early weeks of the Trump administration. But by raising the question, Trump is now able to get credit for reaffirming something he wasn’t ever going to change. His reaffirmation of a 30 year-old boilerplate piece of American foreign policy is now a “gesture toward China.” As an ex-CIA expert quoted by the FT puts it, by reaffirming this longstanding policy, “President Trump opens the ground for a constructive dialogue with Beijing on the difficult but resolvable issues of rebalancing the trading relationship that has tilted in Beijing’s favour.”

The NYT‘s framing also obscures the significance of the call’s timing, which occurred on the eve of a major visit—complete with golf date—by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, right after Trump clarified the U.S. position on backing Japanese control of the Senkakus against possible Chinese attack. The timing of the call amounts to a Chinese recognition that it cannot frighten either Japan or the U.S. from strengthening their alliance.

It is far too early to assess how well Team Trump will succeed in foreign policy, but both the press and foreign powers will need to avoid the kind of blind underestimation that wrecked the careers of savvy and seasoned opponents like Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton. Already a kind of Trump Derangement Syndrome has set in, interfering with the ability of many people to see what Trump is (and isn’t) accomplishing. Creating TDS is part of Trump’s method: making his opponents underestimate him turned out to be a very useful element in his winning campaign strategy. And stampeding the media into a frenzy of contradictory invective and attack is one of the techniques he uses to weaken his opponents, cloud their minds, and discredit them in the minds of his supporters and, over time, he hopes, some doubters as well.

There are certainly downsides to Trump’s transactional approach to great power relations, and these may well cost Team Trump dearly down the road. But there are advantages as well. Trump so far has reasserted the strong U.S. alliance with Japan while pressing Japan to reduce its trade surplus with the U.S. and invest in manufacturing capacity here. At the same time, his threat to reassess the trade element of the U.S.-China economic relationship has brought some sobriety to China’s calculations. That isn’t a bad start.

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