When news broke that Donald Trump had talked on the phone with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-Wen, it was widely criticized as a foreign policy gaffe. A U.S. president had not spoken on the phone with a leader of Taiwan in decades for fear of upsetting the People’s Republic of China, which considers Taiwan a rogue province.
But Washington Post reporting on Monday revealed that the phone call was actually a planned provocation. According to interviews with people involved in its planning, the call was the beginning of a new strategy for engaging Taiwan and taking a tough stance on China.
The telephone call was totally unprecedented. But the combative attitude toward China was not. For decades, U.S. presidents have come into office with sharply negative rhetoric and plans toward China. What usually happens next is predictable, scholars say.
David Lampton, director of China studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said there is a long tradition of politicians issuing bumper sticker statements against China. “And then when they get in a position of government, they find it’s very deleterious to uphold that proposal,” he said.
Ronald Reagan, for example, entered office in 1981 with already-rocky relations with China. During the campaign, he had criticized incumbent President Jimmy Carter for terminating diplomatic relations with Taiwan as the U.S. normalized relations with China in 1978. Reagan repeatedly promised to restore official ties with Taiwan and forge new weapons deals.
Once in office, however, Reagan and Vice President George H.W. Bush embarked on a closer working relationship with China than ever before, according to Paul Haenle, director of the Carnegie Tsinghua Center for Global Policy. Under Reagan, U.S. military officers met with their Chinese counterparts for the first time, and the U.S. began exporting “dual-use technology” like torpedoes, artillery-locating radars and helicopters to the Chinese military, Haenle says.
In the 1992 presidential campaign, which came shortly after the bloody protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, Bill Clinton famously inveighed against the “butchers of Beijing.” Clinton attacked incumbent George H.W. Bush for “coddling dictators” in China and “sending emissaries to raise a toast with those who crushed democracy.”
Clinton promised he would force China to change — and in his first year in office, he issued an executive order requiring China to improve its human rights record before the country’s favored trading status could be renewed.
But Clinton soon faced strong objections to the strategy from American business interests, who feared it would start a trade war. He then had what Lampton describes as a “humiliating back-down.” Clinton ultimately moved to renew China’s favored trading status, saying that revoking it would drive the two countries “back into a period of mutual isolation and recrimination that would harm America’s interests, not advance them.” He later helped to negotiate China’s entry into the World Trade Organization.
History repeated to some extent with George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Bush described China as a “competitor,” not a “strategic partner” on the campaign trail. Then the Sept. 11 attacks occurred, and Bush found he needed Chinese support in his global war on terrorism, Lampton said.
In his first year in office, Bush described relations with China as “candid, constructive and cooperative.”
Like Trump, Obama promised on the campaign trail to label China a currency manipulator. But he never followed through. Obama later faced criticism for choosing to delay a meeting with the Dalai Lama until after he had met with Chinese President Hu Jintao. That backlash may have helped persuade Obama to take a tougher stance on China's territorial expansion in Asia and on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a global trade deal that left China out.
As both pundits and events keep reminding us, Trump appears likely to be a different sort of president altogether. And the call by the president-elect to Taiwan is perhaps more of a diplomatic break with China than ever before.
But Trump would not be “by any means the first person to run for president saying one thing about China and then moving to a more accommodative policy,” Lampton said. Many leaders have found it too challenging to accomplish their goals while at odds with the world's second-largest economy.
“Trump is by nature a negotiator, a dealer. So I think in all probability Trump will have to, and may find it desirable, to negotiate back from some of these positions.”