Be very afraid: Trump claims his unpredictability is a strength in global affairs

Donald Trump and Nigel Farage: sidestepping protocol, Trump recommended his buddy as UK ambassador to Washington. Photo: Twitter @Nigel_Farage

Donald Trump and Nigel Farage: sidestepping protocol, Trump recommended his buddy as UK ambassador to Washington. Photo: Twitter @Nigel_Farage

A Chinese base under construction on Mabini (Johnson) Reef, one of the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Photo: Armed Forces of the Philippines via New York Times

A Chinese base under construction on Mabini (Johnson) Reef, one of the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Photo: Armed Forces of the Philippines via New York Times

Washington: We live in frightening times. After their White House meeting last month, Barack Obama cautioned Americans and the world that the sobering weight of the presidency would restrain Donald Trump – but now we know that everything is up for grabs.

Trump defends his China gaffe on Friday – when he took a call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen – as if, like Chauncey Gardiner in the 1979 film Being There, he just picked up the phone because it was ringing.

If not fully bedded down, tensions over Taiwan had been massaged into an agreed and peaceful coexistence in the decades since Richard Nixon met Mao Zedong in 1972.

But suddenly there’s commotion in the region – other countries are demanding assurances from the Obama White House amid fears of renewed friction between Beijing and Taipei, more dangerous muscle-flexing in the South China Sea and even greater trade uncertainty than already anticipated under Trump.

And in the 48 hours since he took the call, Trump has done nothing to ease the anxiety – other than for one of his aides to insist that taking the call was merely an act of politeness.

But it’s more than that. The President-elect’s supreme confidence in his volatile gut reactions ignores the good sense of considered planning and any consideration that the nation and the international community might benefit were he to take advice before acting on the first thought that comes into his head or on the words of the last person to whom he spoke.

In this case he has upended decades of bipartisan American policy on relations with China. And just as he stumbled into this diplomatic mess, those charged with tidying up in his wake may well smooth over things with Beijing.

Trump claims his unpredictability is a strength.

To the extent that world powers do or don’t get on, and that upstart leaders make their calculations in the context of a framework of global protocols and alliances that at times are demonstrably weird and incomprehensible, a measured approach to altering that imperfect status quo is essential – because every quid has its quo.

But in the mystical, gossamer-like fiction of global diplomacy, Trump seemingly has no regard for how his words will be interpreted, or how they might condition negotiations and crisis management in the future. He doesn’t seem to appreciate that what he says inevitably will be factored in as implicit or explicit US foreign policy.

There was an expectation that Moscow or Beijing would test Trump in his first days in the Oval Office. But here, Trump has beaten them to the punch, with a provocation that builds a floor of distrust and strategic tension into a vital relationship even before he formally takes office.

Some of these tests are calculated – like the Hainan Island incident, in the first months of the George W. Bush presidency, when China detained the crew of a US Navy EP-3 surveillance aircraft after a midair collision with a Chinese aircraft; and in Obama’s first months, when China confronted US surveillance ships in the South China Sea.

Others are accidental and homemade – like the three-minute nightmare, late in the Carter presidency, when a computer malfunction falsely led Washington to believe that a series of intercontinental ballistic missiles were heading towards the US.

If Trump thinks he can wing it, so too will other world leaders.

Just as he tried to ingratiate himself with Russia’s Vladimir Putin during the election campaign, whatever he said in a phone exchange to new Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte was interpreted in Manila as an invitation to the White House, for a leader who happily sanctions the extrajudicial killing of thousands of suspected drug dealers and who dismissed Obama as “a son of a whore”.

Trump’s apparent acceptance of a similar invitation from Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif revealed no regard for antagonistic relations between Islamabad and New Delhi – and Washington’s delicate balancing between them; in casting Kazakhstan’s corrupt and oppressive leader Nursultan Nazarbayev as a “fantastic” miracle-maker, Trump lacked subtlety; and in suggesting that London appoint Brexit leader Nigel Farage as its ambassador to Washington and telling Prime Minister Theresa May “if you travel to the US you should let me know”, he showed himself to be diplomatically tone deaf.

In his world outlook, Trump stumbles naively between where he wants to build hotels and where, and on what terms, the American flag should be planted. It’s no accident that he is yet to nominate a secretary of state; that he doesn’t bother with intelligence briefings; and that he thinks it’s more useful to have his daughter or son-in-law by his side than to get a State Department briefing before taking calls from or meeting with world leaders.

In the course of the campaign, Trump angrily branded Beijing as a currency manipulator and a land-grabbing bully bent on cheating the US. And on the same day that he took the call from Taiwan, he met with John Bolton, a former US ambassador and a candidate to be his secretary of state, who demands stronger US support for Taiwan and a more confrontational US approach to China’s expansionist policies in the South China Sea.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal in January, Bolton said: “The new US administration could start with receiving Taiwanese diplomats officially at the State Department; upgrading the status of US representation in Taipei from a private ‘institute’ to an official diplomatic mission; inviting Taiwan’s president to travel officially to America; allowing the most senior US officials to visit Taiwan to transact government business; and ultimately restoring full diplomatic recognition.”

Even as a considered policy positioning, Trump’s Taiwan call is being faulted. If China and other world powers see Trump as a buffoon, that’s how they will treat him – and in that there’ll be consequences.

“I don’t know whether Trump and his advisers understood the unprecedented nature of this phone call, or how much he debated the effect this may have with his advisers beforehand,” Isaac Stone Fish, a senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Centre on US-China Relations, told The Guardian.

“But the issue of whether or not they knew is hugely important. It helps determine how much trust and respect Americans, and governments around the world, should have in Trump and his team’s competence in handling US foreign policy – if he and his team didn’t know this would cause a stir, then they deserve less respect and trust.

“It’s far more worrying for global stability if Beijing believes that Trump and his advisers just didn’t understand US policy towards Taiwan. If [the Chinese] view this as a blunder, they could decide to move quickly to exploit Trump’s inexperience and incompetence in foreign affairs, and Obama’s lame-duck status.”

Arguing that China would judge the call as historically provocative, Evan Medeiros, a former Asia director at the White House National Security Council, told the Financial Times: “Regardless if it was deliberate or accidental, this phone call will fundamentally change China’s perceptions of Trump’s strategic intentions for the negative. With this kind of move, Trump is setting a foundation of enduring mistrust and strategic competition for US-China relations.”

Beijing’s public response to Trump’s Taiwan call is being judged as tempered – it has lodged an official complaint with Washington but there’s a sense that it also wants to let the President-elect off the hook by blaming Taiwan.

Charging that Taiwan had acted “pettily”, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi insisted: “The One China principle is the foundation for healthy development of Sino-US relations – we don’t wish for anything to obstruct or ruin this foundation.”

But Chinese commentators are more critical.

On Saturday, Wang Dong, an associate professor at the School of International Studies at Peking University, said: “This is a wake-up call for Beijing — we should buckle up for a pretty rocky six months or year in the China-US relationship.”

And allowing Trump an out by dismissing the President-elect as a “private citizen”, Shen Dingli, a professor of international relations at Fudan University in Shanghai, urged that China should end diplomatic relations with the US if Trump maintained such contact with Taiwan as president.

He told The New York Times: “I would close our embassy in Washington and withdraw our diplomats. I would be perfectly happy to end the relationship. I don’t know how you are then going to expect China to cooperate on Iran and North Korea and climate change. You are going to ask Taiwan for [help with] that?”

We’re told often enough that Washington is like a giant aircraft carrier that needs huge space and time to turn around, but for Trump it’s a speedboat, turning on a dime. That’s when accidents happen.

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