Trump’s China Goof Is No Joke

Donald Trump has yanked the tail of a sleeping tiger and the world is going to pay the price.

During the four years I worked on The Man On Mao’s Right for Chinese Ambassador Ji Chaozhu—Mao’s English interpreter and a high-ranking diplomat—I got an up-close-and-personal tutorial on the third rails of Sino-American relations. Trump’s recent flirtation with Taiwan, arranged by former Sen. Bob Dole’s lobbying firm, has managed to touch them all, and at just the wrong moment in history.

Trump has effectively handed China the keys to the kingdom and the midnight oil must be blazing in government ministries throughout the region.

What’s the big deal? Taiwan is China’s Pearl Harbor, except in China’s case the enemy won the war and has occupied it ever since. Taiwan is not a country, it is a province of China. The United Nations decided that in 1971. It is an island that has been dominated by rivals since the Japanese began colonizing it in the 1890s.

The US became Taiwan’s big brother after World War Two by backing a corrupt, Westernized regime that looted China’s treasury and was chased off the mainland by Mao’s Red Army. Ever since 1949, Taiwan’s government has effectively been a US puppet, protected by the American Seventh Fleet and billions in US military aid. The Taiwanese have a long history of manipulating US support through disinformation, bribery, political donations, lobbying, and working with US intelligence agencies to try to undermine Mao’s government, including a failed attempt to assassinate Chinese Premier Chou Enlai in 1955.

So China has a serious grudge against the US. Getting Taiwan back and expanding its military perimeter have been top foreign policy goals for more than seven decades. The reunification of Taiwan is the one the Chinese people hold dearest and is politically popular. What the Chinese also hold dear is dignity. The concept of face is more than a charming cultural affectation. It is the dial tone for all interactions, especially in foreign affairs. Being or appearing weak is a loss of face.

Thus China’s inability to get Taiwan back has been a source of simmering humiliation and resentment, especially after being snookered by the US in 1972, when President Nixon made his famous visit. The US agreed at the time (in the so-called Shanghai Communique) “that there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China … and [the US] affirms the ultimate objective of the withdrawal of all U.S. forces and military installations from Taiwan…”

That was forty-five years ago and the US has been violating that affirmation in one way or another ever since. Trump’s current dalliance with the island’s regime, and his irresponsible remarks about supporting it, just rips the dressing off China’s greatest grievance.

The president-elect appears to be relying on Cold War horses and paid floggers like Dole, and perhaps his own cartoon grasp of history, to promote a foreign policy meme that existed a long time ago, when China was regarded by Washington as a nation of starving blue ants, easily intimidated—a toothless tiger. Not so much anymore. China’s military is huge, sophisticated, and aggressive. It is the US, weary of war, that is intimidated. This is no hack desert regime in the Middle East. This is a global, nuclear power that is currently allied with Russia for its oil.

The flap over those disputed atolls that the PRC has been building up and militarizing; confrontations over fishing zones; tensions with Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, South Korea—it’s all part of a geopolitical shift. The PRC is asserting its dominance over the entire region. All of this was already coming to a head before Trump handed the Chinese government the gift of an insult so stinging it cannot be ignored and is undoubtedly being used to whip up popular support at home for an even more aggressive posture.

Trump has pushed the balance of power so far past the tipping point that no amount of diplomacy will dissuade the Chinese leadership from using his careless insult as an excuse to move forward and complete filling the power vacuum. It’s hard to imagine how this plays out without a high price being paid in one way or another by us all.

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