President-elect Donald J. Trump has already made a significant foreign policy move by speaking on the phone with Tsai Ing-wen, the president of Taiwan. The call shattered decades of diplomatic protocol and raised questions about Mr. Trump’s China strategy.
Paul Haenle, the director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing, is well positioned to gauge Mr. Trump’s action and its consequences. Mr. Haenle is a retired United States Army officer whose interest in East Asia began in the early 1990s, with a deployment to South Korea. He had China-related military assignments at the embassy in Beijing and the Pentagon before serving on the National Security Council for five years. He was China director for the council under President George W. Bush and President Obama.
In an edited interview, Mr. Haenle shares his thoughts on the United States-China relationship in the context of Mr. Trump, Taiwan and North Korea’s nuclear program.
What is your assessment of Mr. Trump’s phone call last Friday with Ms. Tsai?
When President-elect Trump deflected criticism of the call by saying it was Tsai Ing-wen that called him, that seemed to play perfectly into China’s hands. The next day, the Chinese foreign minister chalked the call up to “just a small trick by Taiwan.” China will likely now be looking for ways to punish Tsai for the incident. Will the president-elect stand up for Taiwan when that happens? This is one of the real concerns of those who have pushed back against publicizing the phone call.
What do you predict for United States-China-Taiwan relations in the coming years? When you were on the National Security Council, how was this issue managed, and has the nature of the issue evolved since then?
It is difficult to see how Washington, Beijing and Taipei get to a good place on the Taiwan question in the next several years given the leaderships in each capital.
In my own experience working in the White House during the Chen Shui-bian era, tension in the Taiwan Strait sucked up a lot of the oxygen in the U.S.-China relationship. When tension over Taiwan is at the forefront of U.S.-China relations, it can consume our agenda in a way that prevents us from achieving other important policy objectives, such as making progress on the increasingly dangerous North Korea nuclear issue.
What has been the reaction from your Chinese associates after both Mr. Trump’s win in the election and the Trump-Tsai phone call?
Many Chinese I know had concluded during the campaign that Trump would be good for China because he would be a transactional and pragmatic leader. Unlike Secretary Clinton, he might not inject human rights and values in the relationship. Chinese assumed based on his campaign rhetoric that Trump would retreat from Asia, place less emphasis on U.S. alliance commitments and therefore put less strategic pressure on China.
The Trump-Tsai call was a reality check. The most common reaction I have heard in Beijing is a Chinese saying: to give up one’s illusions. It’s increasingly apparent in China that the Trump administration’s vision for the Asia-Pacific will likely mean more strategic pressure, not less. This has been signaled not just on the Taiwan issue, but also in the South China Sea, with Trump’s advisers promising to rebuild the U.S. Navy and repeal defense sequestration, and on North Korea, where Trump has expressed intention to further pressure China in order to make progress on dealing with the nuclear issue.
In the next four years, what do you see as the biggest potential areas of both tension and cooperation in the United States-China relationship?
In my perspective, North Korea is the clearest threat we face in the Asia-Pacific region in the near term. The threat assessment has changed in the past year or two, and there is a growing consensus that this issue will need to be addressed under the next administration through a redoubling of deterrence measures, sanctions and diplomacy. It will be important for the Trump administration to explore whether we can work effectively with China on this issue. If China is unwilling to take necessary steps, the U.S. may need to move forward unilaterally and with allies to put in place more robust sanctions and to strengthen missile defense systems in the region.
This question is connected to how we assess the Trump-Tsai phone call. If we consider dealing with the threat of North Korean or Iranian nuclear proliferation as top national security threats facing the United States, we need to account for whether or not China’s cooperation would be important in achieving those objectives as we outline our strategy in Asia. In that context, it’s hard to understand how it would make strategic sense that the Tsai call would be the first thing the Trump administration would seek to do as it builds a strategy that is tied to broader U.S. regional interests and objectives.
What advice would you give Trump on how to handle the relationship?
While we need to compete with China and deal firmly in areas where we disagree or feel that U.S. interests are being undermined, there are many issues in the world tied to U.S. interests that come back to whether or not the U.S. and China can work together.
From that standpoint, it will be very important for President-elect Trump to meet early on with the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, and to build a personal relationship with him.
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