Whatever else future historians say about Donald Trump's early foreign policy moves, they're likely to note the erratic and, in many ways, self-defeating nature of the president-elect's initial dealings with China, the country many analysts view as America's most important long-term rival.
A wise strategy for challenging China's ascendancy in Asia is arguably the top foreign policy task for a new president. But if Trump planned to take a tougher stance, this was a haphazard way to do it. The president-elect instead stumbled into a pre-inaugural foreign flap, insulting Beijing and causing it to lose face, without having a clear, well-articulated plan for what he seeks to accomplish.
Worse, Trump's fulminations about China come just as his plan to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership is undermining America's standing with the allies in Asia. Trump, in effect, is ceding economic ground to China at the very moment he claims to be taking a harder line. Is this a cool, calculating strategy from the deal-maker? It looks to me more like a hot mess.
Trump's phone call Friday with Taiwan's president needn't have created this crisis. The Chinese at first seemed willing to give the inexperienced Trump a pass — blaming the precedent-altering call on "petty" maneuvering by Taipei. Beijing presumably recognized that this wasn't the time to pick a fight, and Trump should have adopted the same stance.
But Trump, evidently feeling cornered, doubled down. He unleashed a Twitter storm about China's currency manipulation (a largely bogus charge he repeated through the campaign) and its aggressive actions in the South China Sea (a real problem requiring strong, steady U.S. leadership). An embarrassed China is sure to take countermeasures, which will further confound U.S. policy.
The episode reinforced two points about Trump: He loves to be flattered by calls from foreign leaders (including "presidents" of countries the U.S. doesn't recognize). And he's thin-skinned, and reacts to criticism with the pique of an American Kim Jong Un.
Twitter amplifies Trump's tendency for personal overreaction. In an era of nuclear weapons, this sort of undamped presidential oscillation could be seriously dangerous to global health.
To understand this China flap, try imagining it through the eyes of Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state who created the template for modern U.S.-China relations. On Friday, he was in Beijing saying soothing things about Trump; a few hours later, the president-elect threw a stink bomb into the edifice Kissinger started building 45 years ago.
President Xi Jinping had welcomed Kissinger Friday as a potential intermediary with Trump. "We are now in a key moment," Xi said. "Dr. Kissinger, I am all ears to what you have to say about the current world situation and the future growth of China-U.S. relations."
Kissinger suggested that Trump, despite his inexperience, would be pragmatic. After his meeting with Xi, he told CNN's Fareed Zakaria, "This president-elect, it's the most unique that I've experienced in one respect: He has absolutely no baggage." He argued that despite Trump's inflammatory campaign positions, analysts "should not insist in nailing him to positions that he had taken in the campaign on which he doesn't insist."
Then — kaboom! — the Taiwan call, which raised questions about the durability of Kissinger's 1972 Shanghai Communique that set the basic framework of the "One China" policy.
This jousting over Taiwan wouldn't be so worrisome if other aspects of the U.S. Asia policy were intact. But Trump's pledge to tear up the TPP in his first days in office has sent the other 11 nations that signed the pact scrambling for cover — with some talking of making new deals with a Beijing that is eager to fill the void.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, America's most important Asian ally, said last month that TPP members would consider joining a rival, Chinese-led trade agreement known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP. "There's no doubt that there would be a pivot to the RCEP if the TPP doesn't go forward," Abe said. Peru and Australia, two other TPP signatories, also indicated they might join the RCEP.
"If you want to stand up to China, the last thing you should do is walk away from TPP," said Michael Froman in an interview. He's the U.S. trade representative Trump blasted during the campaign as an incompetent negotiator.
It must be said that Trump's slapdash, self-destructive Asian maneuvers over the past week make Froman look like a negotiating genius, by comparison. Trump just faced his first foreign policy test with the Taiwan flap and muffed it. Let's hope he learns something.
David Ignatius writes a foreign affairs column. He has also written eight spy novels. "Body of Lies" was made into a 2008 film starring Leonard DiCaprio and Russell Crowe. He began writing his column in 1998. To read more of his reports, Click Here Now.