Does Donald Trump Know What He Is Doing When Insulting China?

The manager of Jinhua Partytime Latex Art and Crafts Factory wears a Donald Trump mask, in Jinhua, Zhejiang Province, China, May 25. Elizabeth C. Economy writes that China has the capacity to hit and hit back hard—both on the trade and investment front and in the security arena—after insults by Trump. Aly Song/reuters

This article first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations site.

As the Donald Trump Taiwan-China saga continues to unfold, I thought it might be useful to look at the sequence of events and report on how Chinese scholars are looking at President-elect Trump's first foreign policy musings and how we in the United States might understand his statements and actions to date.

Here is a brief rundown:

  • Trump accepts a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen, breaking decades of diplomatic precedent in the process.
  • He defends the phone call on Twitter on the grounds that she called him; that it would have been rude not to accept the call; that Taiwan buys billions of dollars' worth of arms from the United States; and that China can't tell him what to do.
  • Via Twitter, he calls out China on currency manipulation, unfair trade practices and its military buildup in the South China Sea.
  • He names China's "old friend" Iowa Governor Terry Branstad as his pick for ambassador to China.
  • He indicates that he is ready to rethink the "One China" policy because China does everything he noted earlier in his tweets, plus Beijing doesn't help out the United States enough with North Korea. He could be persuaded to rethink his rethink, however, if China puts something good on the table, perhaps related to trade.

Related: China 'Seriously Concerned' by Trump's Taiwan Comments

While the official view from Beijing has evolved from tempered to truculent, Chinese scholars continue to try to understand the president-elect, holding out hope that the relationship will eventually find a new equilibrium.

Wang Wenfeng, a scholar at the Ministry of Public Security's influential think tank, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, for example, reflects hope mixed with anxiety:

We really need to know more about Donald Trump the person. Why he does something and what is his logic behind his words and deeds are important for the outside world to understand Trump and his policy.

For Trump, he definitely needs to know more about the world. He still has a lot to learn about policy issues…. It will take time for Trump to get used to his new job, and we only hope that before that, not much damage will be done.

Senior scholar Tao Wenzhao suggests that the United States cannot afford for the relationship to deteriorate and Trump's business sense ultimately may serve the bilateral relationship well. He comments:

Trump can…not afford the risk of worsened relations with China. In particular, the U.S. is now experiencing fiscal difficulty and internal division. There is no basis for a policy that would worsen U.S.-China relations…. The two countries may well cooperate through some commercial arrangement…

Trump is a businessman, who values solid interests. He will also focus his attention on domestic affairs rather than having a strong impulse to expand American-style democracy overseas. Human rights pressure on China is likely to decrease.

My own view reflects a similar mix of hope, anxiety and serious concern. On the positive side, Trump brings a singular advantage to the table as a foreign policy novice. He is unencumbered by all the diplomatic decisions—good and bad—that have come before him. He is willing to question the underpinnings of our relationships with Taiwan and China. No one should fault him for that.

It would be helpful, however, if he is going to dive headfirst into one of the most longstanding and thorny issues the United States confronts—how to navigate its relations with China and Taiwan—that he articulate his priorities.

He seems to be suggesting that the name of the game is trade and investment. He believes that the United States has received the short end of a stick in its economic relations with China and appears willing to try whatever it might take to change the situation.

Security concerns are a distant second, and debate about human rights is missing in action. Donald Trump may elevate Taiwan in U.S. foreign policy and help it to achieve greater recognition internationally or he may sell it down the proverbial strait. We just don't know. He may not either.

Moreover, at some point in time—and that time is coming soon—President-elect Trump will be in a position to act, not just speak, and his actions will have consequences.

China has the capacity to hit and hit back hard—both on the trade and investment front and in the security arena. President-elect Trump's staff has promised that he would spend considerable time getting up to speed on foreign policy in his first months as president—he might want to start by reading Steven Goldstein's excellent piece on the "One China" policy in The Washington Post that lays it all out.

Before Trump begins to dismantle what Americans have spent a century negotiating and fighting to achieve, I hope that even if he does not know what has come before, he has a good idea of what he wants to come next and what it will take and cost to get it.

Elizabeth C. Economy is the C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Read more from