Analysis: Trump's tweetstorm about China wrong-foots Beijing

Chinese officials had expected the president-elect, as a businessman, to be focused on negotiable issues between the US and China. But Trump's Taiwan tweets have upended their expectations.

Ng Han Guan/AP/File
A front page of a Chinese newspaper with a photo of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and the headline 'Outsider counter attack' is displayed at a newsstand in Beijing last month.

Pity the poor Chinese government.

They are the first ones on whom President-elect Donald Trump has tried out his personal brand of instant Twitter-diplomacy. But they are the last ones to know how to deal with it.

“The Chinese are particularly prone to believing that everything is planned, given the nature of their system,” says Shelley Rigger, who teaches Chinese politics at Davidson College in North Carolina.

“They are used to thinking that all foreign policies are as carefully planned as theirs,” she explains. “So it will be hard for them,” as they sift through Mr. Trump’s Twitter feed, “to figure out what is durable and what might blow over.”

“They are totally baffled,” adds Willy Lam, a China analyst with the Jamestown Foundation, a think tank in Washington. “Trump does not seem to play by the established rules of diplomacy.”

And it is more than a question of style. Trump chose to kick off his China diplomacy not with a negotiable economic issue, but by apparently challenging Beijing’s most dearly held value.

The President-elect ruffled feathers in Beijing (and in Washington’s foreign policy establishment circles) by talking on the phone last weekend to Tsai Ing-wen, the president of Taiwan, which Beijing claims as a renegade province. He was the first US leader to speak to a Taiwanese leader for 40 years, since the US normalized diplomatic relations with Beijing as the capital of “one China.”

He followed that shock move with a couple of quick tweets lashing out at China’s assertive territorial moves in the South China Sea and its tax and exchange rate policies, in the same vein as earlier campaign-trail complaints.

US foreign policy experts can argue the merits of revising Washington’s relations with Taiwan, a flourishing democracy, but the topic is toxic in Beijing. The Communist government regards Taiwan’s status as part of “one China” as the most critical of its declared “core interests.”

Western observers had been expecting China to make a provocative move somewhere in the region to test the new US president’s mettle. Instead, Trump has stolen a march on Beijing.

“This is a deliberate move to test China’s bottom line,” argues Wang Dong, who teaches international politics at Peking University. “If China reacts strongly he’ll back off; if he sees it as soft, he might keep pushing the envelope.”

Either way, Trump has turned out to be a major disappointment to the Chinese government, Dr. Wang says. Until last weekend, he points out, the accepted wisdom in Beijing’s corridors of power was that “Trump was a businessman, pragmatic, not an ideologue, an isolationist, someone China could cut a deal with.

“Those illusions have now been shattered,” he says. “People have returned to reality and figured out that Donald Trump is not someone we can deal easily with. He risks serious confrontations and setbacks in China-US relations.”

What really took Beijing by surprise, suggests Mr. Lam, is that the assumption that he cared most about “things that are negotiable where China is ready for give and take,” such as trade, jobs and the exchange rate, seems to have been proved wrong.

In his first move he has instead gone to the heart of the most sensitive of China’s “red line issues,” Lam points out.

Trump and his advisers knew that; they made a deliberate decision that the President-elect should talk to Ms. Tsai regardless of Beijing’s feelings on the matter. But Trump’s subsequent tweets – the first one pointing out that Tsai placed the call and another two criticizing Beijing’s policies – have dragged Taiwan into a wider dispute between the US and China.

It would be a lot easier and less risky for Beijing to punish Taiwan rather than the United States, of course. Indeed, the Chinese government has been putting the squeeze on Tsai since she was elected last January because she has refused to accept the “one China” formula.

Mainland tourist numbers are down 30 percent from a year ago and the Chinese government has a number of options if it wants to make life even harder for Taiwan, ranging from putting obstacles in the way of Taiwanese investors on the mainland to staging threatening military exercises in the Taiwan Straits.

Dissing Beijing as Trump did in his tweets is all very well, says Professor Rigger. “Except that it ends up endangering the party that the original phone call was intended to protect.”

Evidently Twitter-diplomacy has its limits.

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