On Dec. 2, US president-elect Donald Trump received a telephone call from President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) — the first time in nearly 40 years that a US president or president-elect has talked to the president of the Republic of China. It will be one for the history books.
Responding to a question from Democratic Progressive Party Legislator Tsai Shih-ying (蔡適應) at the Legislative Yuan, National Security Bureau Director-General Peng Sheng-chu (彭勝竹) said the bureau had “no prior intelligence that Trump’s team would be willing to accept Tsai’s telephone call.”
This is correct: It certainly cannot be seen as an intelligence failure by the bureau.
Organizing a call between the leaders of two nations is no easy task. One cannot simply pick up the telephone and immediately connect to one’s opposite number; far from a hasty act, introductions and assessments have to be made by a series of officials before the call can take place.
The call has been described by some as a result of public relations and lobbying, but that is an extremely narrow way of looking at the world. Whether the call represents a policy shift remains to be seen.
Nevertheless, attention should be paid to the recent movements of former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger. Despite various media organizations reporting the Tsai-Trump call on Dec. 3, only Japan’s Sankei Shimbun picked up that Kissinger met with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) in Beijing on the same day.
Trump’s close acquaintance with Kissinger, who has also advised Trump for several years, has been well documented in the media. During and after the election campaign, Kissinger met with Trump on two separate occasions. Discussions are reported to have included Russia and all areas of the Chinese-speaking world — Kissinger was clearly giving Trump foreign-affairs advice.
Xi and Kissinger decided to meet on the very day Tsai called Trump. What are the chances of this being a coincidence? The date suggests that Trump was engaging in a traditional diplomatic ritual — notifying the interested parties ahead of time.
Stephen Yates, who was deputy security adviser to former US vice president Dick Cheney, is a familiar figure in Taiwan. On Tuesday last week, Yates visited Taiwan in a private capacity, in what he described as “an interesting week.”
On Wednesday last week, Kissinger met with Trump once again as if he were reporting back to the president-elect following his Beijing trip. This implies that Kissinger was under instructions to carry out a specific task in China.
If the Trump administration is able to quickly put on an overwhelming display of power, he will be able to catch Beijing off guard and buy himself valuable time to consolidate power and build a stable government. If unsuccessful, Trump will be forever on the back foot, unable to fend off attacks from the enemy.
An “old friend of China,” Kissinger was instrumental in the normalization of the US-China relationship. Following Kissinger’s trip to Beijing to launch the opening salvo of Trump’s attack, the media quickly reported that another “old friend” of China, Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, had been chosen to be Trump’s ambassador to China — as Beijing likes dealing with “old friends,” Trump obliged.
Trump and his team certainly like to do things differently.
The phone call was all about setting out how Trump’s administration will handle the US-China relationship, rather than about the Taiwan-US relationship. For the next four years, will it be Trump or the Republican Party running the government in the US? With Kissinger’s appearance, the answer is gradually becoming clearer.