Monday, December 5, 2016

parsing the Taiwan phone call

The Trump transition people have dismissed the foreign policy blowback against the president-elect's phone conversation with Taiwan's president as a routine congratulatory call. The Washington Post, however, says today that it was "an intentionally provocative move"  following "months of quiet preparations and deliberations." The sources were unnamed, identified only as "people involved in the planning."

It's fun to try some careful analysis of this and related stories.  There are 3 possible theories for the call.

1. Trump is ignorant. He failed to know that such a call would have major foreign policy significance and consequences. He hasn't been using established State Department lines and protocols for such calls.

2. Trump is devious. He knew the call would anger China, which he intends to do over trade anyway, so this was just part of his negotiating strategy.

3. Trump has been captured by the China hawks. Key people around Trump and the transition, including Reince Priebus, have long been pro-Taiwan outliers, disagreeing with the mainstream Republican view that the United States has to engage with China, not treat it as an inevitable enemy who must be contained now.

While my first reaction, and that of others, was the ignorance theory, I now believe that the capture theory is more likely. With so few mainstream conservative foreign policy experts involved in the campaign and transition, the China hawks united in proposing a provocative action that Trump accepted because it fit his tweetstorm approach. He certainly thought he could get away with it without major consequences.

I reach this conclusion because the story does name people who seem to be bragging that they worked out this clever ploy. Ed Feulner of the Heritage Foundation was reportedly in Taiwan right after the election. Others were told "there was a briefing" for Trump before the call, which the Taiwanese say was agreed in advance by "both sides."

A key question for analysis is cui bono? Who benefits from this? The Trump people clearly want to shoot down the ignorance theory without acknowledging the other possibilities. But the staffers directly involved want to brag to somebody, so they tell their China hawk friends what they did. And Trump was complicit because it looked clever.

Let's see who wins the next round.

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