Tea Leaf Nation

Trump Chats with Taiwan’s President, and China (Strategically) Shrugs

State and social media evince a surprisingly muted reaction to an issue long regarded as "core" to Beijing.

DALLAS, TX - SEPTEMBER 14:  Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the American Airlines Center on September 14, 2015 in Dallas, Texas. More than 20,000 tickets have been distributed for the event.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
DALLAS, TX - SEPTEMBER 14: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the American Airlines Center on September 14, 2015 in Dallas, Texas. More than 20,000 tickets have been distributed for the event. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

On Dec. 2, Donald Trump made history, of a sort, when he picked up the phone. His call with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-Wen, first reported by the Financial Times, made Trump the first U.S. president or president-elect since 1979 to have direct contact with the leader of the self-governing island of 23 million.

Foreign policy experts in both the United States and China have declared themselves aghast at the move, which flouts a long-running convention against direct contact between the United States and Taiwan’s top leaders. Stateside, public hand wringing promptly ensued about the firestorm sure to follow in China, 12 hours ahead of New York, after it awoke to the news. But the reaction among Beijing-controlled media and mainland grassroots web users has so far been surprisingly restrained, portraying Trump less as an apocalyptic figure and more as a tyro falling for Taiwan’s sneaky tricks.

Observers unfamiliar with U.S.-China relations could be forgiven for wondering at all the fuss. But Taiwan, which has its own government and military, is a neuralgic issue for Beijing, which is determined to re-incorporate the island into its sovereign territory, and insists it is already a part of mainland China. In 1979, when the United States established formal ties with the People’s Republic of China on the mainland, it continued relations with Taiwan, and even sells it arms for its defense, but now does so without the official trappings of state-to-state ties. This has all required various verbal and diplomatic contortions, principal among them an understanding, first hammered out in the Nixon administration, that “there is but one China,” with leaders in Taipei and Beijing free to interpret the language in their own favor. To avoid the appearance of fomenting Taiwanese independence, U.S. presidents have also kept their distance from their counterpart in Taiwan for decades. The whole arrangement may seem contorted and formalistic, but it has accompanied decades of relative stability in the Taiwan strait, and has taken on a talismanic quality in Beijing. Diplomats in the United States and China are loath to see what happens without it.

In this context, if the Dec. 3 edition of People’s Daily, a mouthpiece for China’s Communist Party, had thunderously inveighed against Trumpian intermeddling, readers would not have blanched. Instead, it scarcely mentioned the matter, offering only a sparse readout from a press conference with Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Geng Shuang, in which Geng reiterated that the one-China policy was “the political basis for Sino-U.S. relations,” one that avoids “undue interference” with the status quo. Even the Global Times, another state-run outlet that acts a bit as the party’s unrestrained id, focused mostly on Taiwan’s having played an “edge ball” — a shot in ping-pong that’s in-bounds, but barely — and sought to remind readers that “Trump will bring his individual personality into the White House, but he won’t bring strength [the U.S. doesn’t have] into Sino-U.S. relations.” The China Daily, Beijing’s overseas propaganda arm, stressed in English that observers should not “over interpret” Trump’s call, which “exposed nothing but his and his transition team’s inexperience.”

Beijing appears to have calculated that declaring the phone call to have smashed a foundational element of its relationship with the United States only makes that very outcome more likely. Instead, by reacting coolly and reiterating its understanding of the “one China policy,” Beijing may be retroactively trying to haul the Trump-Tsai call back from the symbolic brink. The one-China policy, after all, is currently a fiction — Beijing seems content to add a fiction of its own, which is that a President-elect ignoring the whole thing means very little.

If anything, Beijing has outwardly been more displeased with Tsai. The Global Times howled that the mainland “has the means to punish [Tsai] and should use those means without hesitation.” Foreign minister Wang Yi called the move a “little trick” by Taiwan’s leader, a woman whom mainland state-controlled media has vilified since the day of her inauguration, when she refused to incant the one-China principle with the fidelity Beijing expects.

Beijing has been far more restrained in its rhetoric toward Trump, whom it will surely need to keep in a good mood if it wishes to exact concessions on trade, human rights, or control of the roiling South China Sea. It may have calculated that an official tantrum about Trump’s latest impulse will only forfeit leverage China will need later.

But grassroots commenters on the Chinese social network Weibo, freed from the burdens of international statecraft, are now likening Trump to an inexperienced, wayward child. Even the official account for the police department in a prefecture-level city called Dezhou chimed in, writing that Trump had “just been victimized by a telephone scam.”

Many noticed that the White House issued a pointed declaration on Dec. 2 that it remains “firmly committed to our ‘one China’ policy.” Beijing surely sees that as a great relief, and a possible face-saving gesture for Trump; online commenters interpreted those remarks more literally. “White House: The boy doesn’t get it,” read one. “United States: The new president doesn’t understand the situation — sorry!” read another. One web user saw the move as “a spank on the ass for Trump,” adding that the Chinese foreign ministry’s response meant, “Your son will be naughty some times. But the daddy is still the daddy.”

Trump risked compounding the diplomatic damage with a subsequent tweet late Dec. 2, which read, “The President of Taiwan CALLED ME today to wish me congratulations on winning the Presidency. Thank you!” (The call may have lacked the spontaneity Trump tried to convey; reports from Taipei say it was pre-arranged between Tsai’s and Trump’s camps.) But virtually everyone in China insists on calling Tsai the “leader of the Taiwan region,” not the president. “Trump can start a diplomatic incident with a tweet; I hope this matter will make him understand that there are things you probably shouldn’t say,” wrote one commenter. Another opined, “It’s not a big problem to make a phone call. The important thing is that Trump sent a tweet calling Tsai President,” which constitutes “another little trick” from the island.

Others declared themselves “tired” with the Taiwan issue altogether. “The territory will inevitably be returned,” wrote one Weibo user, who blamed the island’s leadership. “There are people up top who aren’t willing to do it, and they can’t be dragged into the sea.” (In fact, only nine percent of Taiwanese now say they support reunification.) Another seemed wise to the effect that Trump’s touch has thus far had on affairs of state. “From now on, please place all Taiwan-related news in the ‘Entertainment’ category,” the user wrote. “Thank you.”

Getty Images

David Wertime is a senior editor at Foreign Policy, where he manages its China section, Tea Leaf Nation. In 2011, he co-founded Tea Leaf Nation as a private company translating and analyzing Chinese social media, which the FP Group acquired in September 2013. David has since created two new miniseries and launched FP’s Chinese-language service. His culture-bridging work has been profiled in books including The Athena Doctrine and Digital Cosmopolitans and magazines including Psychology Today. David frequently discusses China on television and radio and has testified before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. In his spare time, David is an avid marathon runner, a kitchen volunteer at So Others Might Eat, and an expert mentor at 1776, a Washington, D.C.-based incubator and seed fund. Originally from Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, David is a proud returned Peace Corps volunteer. He holds an English degree from Yale University and a law degree from Harvard University.

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