(Bloomberg View) -- Aides to President-elect Donald Trump say that his precedent-shattering phone call with Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen on Friday was not a diplomatic blunder but a deliberate move to signal resolve against China. If so, he needs to rethink his strategy.
There are valid arguments for the U.S. to be more assertive toward China, and Trump has even articulated some of them. China's island-building efforts in the South China Sea, and its harassment of Japan in the East China Sea, are destabilizing. In many ways, the Chinese economy remains unfriendly to foreign competition, with certain areas closed off entirely. On North Korea, China has not done nearly enough to temper the regime's bellicose instincts.
Any successful strategy to change China’s calculations and behavior, however, requires several elements -- chief among them clarity and consistency. This Trump has not provided. After news broke of the call, the first between a U.S. president or president-elect and Taiwan’s leader since the U.S. established diplomatic relations with Communist China in 1979, Trump initially seemed to suggest it hadn’t been his idea. Then he protested that critics were overreacting. Then he lashed out at China for its supposed hypocrisy. Claims that he was challenging conventional State Department thinking won’t impress leaders in Beijing. The incoming administration now stands to lose credibility if it fails to follow through.
Moreover, any attempt to reorder the chessboard in Asia requires buy-in from allies. Chinese leaders weren’t the only ones left wondering what exactly Trump intends or how he plans to pursue his goals. America’s friends in the region are already worried about the president-elect’s isolationist impulses and frustrated with his sinking of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. Several were hedging toward China even before Trump’s victory, and now more will be reluctant to participate in any attempt to pressure the Chinese regime. That knowledge is sure to stiffen rather than weaken Chinese resolve.
The new U.S. administration will have more luck if it calibrates the pressure it places on China rather than engages in showy gambits. The Barack Obama administration did actually manage to alter Chinese behavior with specific threats on some issues -- cyberspying and on land reclamation at Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, for example. By contrast, Taiwan's status remains the foremost of China’s core interests, and pressing further there will make compromise in other areas virtually impossible.
And advancing U.S. interests does require cooperation with China. It might seem silly, as Trump tweeted, for the U.S. to sell billions of dollars' worth of weaponry to Taiwan but not accept a phone call from its legitimately elected leader. Yet the U.S. position on the island has enabled decades of peace and relative stability across the Taiwan Strait -- not to mention trade and economic development that’s benefited Taiwan as well as the U.S. and China. It’s also allowed for cooperation between Washington and Beijing -- not as much as one might like, but crucial nonetheless -- on fighting global warming, limiting Iran’s nuclear ambitions and sanctioning North Korea. Such deals make the U.S. stronger -- and a President Trump may find he needs to strike more of them.
--Editors: Nisid Hajari, Michael Newman.