Only Nixon could go to China. And only Trump could risk destroying Nixon's China work with a single phone call.
Or perhaps it's more complicated than that. In fact, it seems plausible, maybe even likely, that President-elect Donald Trump has more elaborate plans for China than anyone realized.
Responding to the dramatic rise of China is easily the most important foreign policy issue facing America. During the campaign, Trump's China rhetoric focused on economic matters: charges that China was manipulating its currency and that American companies who relocated manufacturing to China were harming American workers. It was reasonable to expect that, once in office, Trump would seek to renegotiate the terms of our economic arrangement with China, whether bluntly by slapping tariffs on Chinese goods (which would likely be struck down by the WTO, and which would surely trigger Chinese retaliation regardless), or through some more sophisticated negotiating strategy. And if he pursued the latter course, there were indications that Trump had something to offer the Chinese in trade.
For example, Trump questioned the necessity of America's troops being stationed in South Korea. I've argued before that coming to an understanding with the Chinese on the future status of a denuclearized peninsula would be a great place to start building a more cooperative relationship with China on geostrategic matters.
Similarly, the Obama administration's Trans-Pacific Partnership was substantially about competing with China for the economic allegiance of many of the same countries. Having aggressively criticized the TPP, Trump may have been signaling to the Chinese that he was less interested in that kind of competition for influence than in securing the best deals for American companies and American workers.
It was possible for the Chinese to imagine that a Trump administration would take a firmer, more nationalist line on America's economic interest, but would be less concerned in preventing China from pursuing its security objectives or expanding its influence in its region.
That interpretation is now somewhat less plausible, to say the least.
Last Friday, the president-elect received a congratulatory phone call from the Taiwanese president, the first contact at that level since America suspended formal diplomatic relations with the island in 1979. Contrary to initial reports, it now appears this was a planned contact arranged months in advance and aimed at letting the Chinese know that America was going to be more assertive going forward.
China's response has so far been measured, though as Trump's rhetoric has escalated, so has the Chinese rhetorical response. But the primary reason for that still-measured tone is that the Chinese still do not really know what the intentions of the new administration might be for bilateral relations. If China concludes that Trump is serious about deepening or possibly even normalizing relations with Taiwan, that would likely lead to a direct clash with Beijing, with potentially catastrophic consequences.
But it is also plausible that Trump is playing his pro-Taiwanese advisers like Stephen Yates for chumps, and using Taiwan merely as a bargaining chip in a high-stakes game of poker. Trump may be trying to create a crisis precisely in order to resolve it by trading away a harder line on Taiwan in exchange for concessions elsewhere — presumably on matters of trade. In that case, the biggest risk is that the Taiwanese — or any American allies in the region — take Trump's promises to them seriously.
A Taiwanese declaration of independence, for example, would likely prompt a Chinese military response. Would America support Taiwan in that circumstance? It's hard to imagine we would — but that doesn't mean we wouldn't suffer badly from the fallout. In 2008 the Georgian president launched a campaign to oust Russian troops from rebellious regions of his country, believing he had American backing. Instead, his country suffered a humiliating defeat, and Russian-American relations were poisoned for years to come. The consequences of abandoning Taiwan in comparable circumstances would be far more severe and wide ranging.
The great unknown, and the key to answering any question about the future of U.S.-China relations, is a true sense of how Trump understands the rise of China within the context of the current system of global security that he has been so critical of.
From one perspective, America and China are in the early years of the second stage of a "power transition." This is almost certainly how China understands the situation. And if they are correct, then America has a difficult diplomatic task ahead of it. If we cannot cooperatively transform the international system, we risk falling into what Graham Allison calls the "Thucydides Trap," within which both accommodative and confrontational policies can pave the way to devastating and unnecessary war.
But there also observers who hold that China, far from being in the middle stages of an inevitable rise, is already showing signs of strain. From these observers' perspectives, the key to maintaining American primacy is to force China to confront directly just how much more powerful America is, and will remain. Needless to say, it is from these quarters that we've seen the most enthusiastic response to Trump's Taiwan phone call.
Does Trump see a restored American greatness as primarily a matter of putting American interests first and paring back on overseas commitments that have outlived their usefulness? Or does he see American greatness as depending on hobbling potential rivals, starting with the largest and most potent? Is his gesture to Taiwan a high-risk negotiating tactic? Or is he looking to force a confrontation?
Trump famously likes to keep his actual intentions to himself, so as to give himself the maximum leeway in negotiating with an adversary. But that degree of freedom of action demands an enormous level of trust, which the incoming administration has not yet earned.
In the meantime, the best we can hope for is that he will seek advice from people who are more knowledgeable than he is about the most important questions America faces. In regard to military matters, Trump's choice of James Mattis for secretary of defense has already prompted a chorus of sighs of relief. It would be greatly reassuring, especially given recent events, if Trump were to appoint as top diplomat someone who is deeply knowledgeable about America's most important rival and trading partner — someone who has already gone to China.
Someone like — I don't know — Jon Huntsman, perhaps?