Trump may raise temperature with China but it is time some protocols were challenged, experts say
Donald Trump has earned his reputation for recklessness over many months. But not everyone is convinced his bumpy entry into Asian strategy in the form of a rare phone conversation with Taiwan’s leader spells dangerous anarchy in Asia.
Rather, some believe, Trump’s call with Tsai Ing-wen sends a much-needed signal to Beijing that the unquestioned protocols that allow it to launch a diplomatic protest over a simple phone call between two democratically elected leaders no longer apply.
That will raise the temperature and countries in the region including allies such as Australia need to be ready for that. But some experts believe that creating some doubt in Beijing’s mind is in the best interests of the region.
China has been in a favourable groove. It has steadily put its stamp on the South China Sea without challenge. It has marginalised Taiwan. It has smoothed things over with the Philippines just months after the devastating arbitral decision that sided with Manila. It has kept ASEAN neutered.
“I can see the logic of using some uncertainty for creative effect to place the thought in China’s mind that the US is not automatically going to support its core interests,” said Euan Graham, director of the Lowy Institute’s international security program, who described much of the reaction to the phone call as “overwrought”.
“There is a risk element to that but I’m at the end of the spectrum that says the US has to … accept more risk in its relationship with China.”
He said the established order had in many ways failed Taiwan.
Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said Trump was “sending a very clear signal to Beijing that he’s not going to be taken for granted and China will not be able to dictate the terms to him as to how the US engages with Taiwan”.
“I actually think it may be no bad thing for the Chinese to be a little uncertain in how they behave towards Trump. It will curb some of their brinkmanship on the South China Sea.”
Both Dr Graham and Mr Jennings said the Trump administration would most likely maintain the “one China” policy that does not diplomatically recognise Taiwan.
But Mr Jennings said Mr Trump could increase arms sales to Taipei and would likely take a firmer line on other flashpoint issues such as Beijing’s island-building in the South China Sea.
The question remains to what extent it is carefully calculated and calibrated policy rather than just Mr Trump shooting from the hip. Dr Graham and Mr Jennings both believed it was deliberate and planned.
Mr Jennings said more would be expected of allies including Australia in this new era.
Dr Graham said Australia was well-placed as an ally and would likely be under less pressure than some countries such as South Korea and Japan – though Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wanted to make Japan’s position more muscular anyway.
Question marks over the level of Asia expertise in the incoming Trump administration – given how many Republicans vowed not to work with Mr Trump – could be an opportunity for Australia, Dr Graham said.
“I think that gives Australia leverage in the alliance.”