Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump listens to his mobile phone during a lunch stop, Feb. 18, 2016, in North Charleston, S.C.
Photo by Matt Rourke/AP

To explain Trump’s Taiwan move, there are 3 alarming possibilities

It’s been a long while since a phone call, in which nothing of significance was said, rattled international affairs quite this much.
President-elect Donald Trump spoke Friday with Taiwan’s president, in a move that broke with decades of U.S. policy and could put a strain on the relationship between the U.S. and China.

The U.S. has not had diplomatic relations with Taiwan since 1979. As part of the agreement establishing official diplomatic relations with China, the U.S. government established a “One China” policy, recognizing the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal government and ceasing all diplomatic recognition of Taiwan.
The Rachel Maddow Show, 12/2/16, 9:00 PM ET

Trump risks China rift with Taiwan call

Senator Chris Murphy talks with Rachel Maddow about the complicated relationship between the U.S. and Taiwan and how Donald Trump’s phone call with the Taiwanese president has upset 40 years of careful U.S.-China diplomacy.
Senator Chris Murphy talks with Rachel Maddow about the complicated relationship between the U.S. and Taiwan and how Donald Trump’s phone call with the Taiwanese president has upset 40 years of careful U.S.-China diplomacy.
I hope you watched Rachel’s segment on this on Friday night, because while some Americans may not appreciate why the call was such a big deal, this was a dramatic moment for U.S. foreign policy. As Rachel explained, it took decades for bipartisan policymaking to carefully craft America’s approach to China, but Trump “took that silverware drawer out of the kitchen cabinet today and turned it upside down, over his head, and just started shaking the silverware…. It took decades to develop the grounds on which we talk to China – and Donald Trump tore it up.”

The next question is pretty straightforward: why in the world did the president-elect, who’s never demonstrated any interest in or knowledge of foreign policy, make such a radical move. There are three possible answers, though none of them is especially encouraging.

1. Maybe Trump screwed up. Trump has no working understanding of international affairs, and his team has made no effort to coordinate with the State Department during the presidential transition process – despite the Obama administration making diplomatic personnel available to Trump aides in order to help the new team avoid any embarrassing incidents.

And with this in mind, it’s entirely possible the president-elect just bumbled into this because he has no idea what he’s doing, as has become clear in other, unrelated courtesy calls with foreign leaders. Indeed, Trump’s official line is that the Taiwanese leader called him, which in his mind, effectively ends the controversy.

It’s not hard to imagine the Taiwanese leader placing a call to Trump, and Trump welcoming the chance to chat with anyone who wants to congratulate him, because he’s simply ignorant of how and why U.S. leaders from both parties have very carefully avoided this same call for decades.

2. Maybe Trump decided to unilaterally and radically change decades of bipartisan U.S. policy on purpose. It’s also possible that the president-elect, or whoever tells him what to think about these issues, decided now would be a good time to provoke China and create new tensions with one of the planet’s burgeoning superpowers. In fact, NBC News reported on Saturday that this call “was pre-arranged,” according to a top Taiwanese official.

A Washington Post piece added that the call was “an intentionally provocative move … according to interviews with people involved in the planning.” The conversation, the article added, “was the product of months of quiet preparations and deliberations among Trump’s advisers about a new strategy for engagement with Taiwan that began even before he became the Republican presidential nominee.” If accurate, the reporting suggests Trump wasn’t telling the truth when he said on Friday that this was simply a congratulatory chat.

For the record, presidents are not required to honor international norms. They should probably wait until they’re actually in office, but if a Trump White House comes to the conclusion that the status quo towards the most populous nation on the planet needs to be shredded, Trump has the authority to pursue a radical new course if he wants. It’s not clear at all clear, though, why he’d take such a step. Is this an attempt to gain leverage in some future negotiation? Does Trump see some hidden benefit to throwing China off-balance by antagonizing Beijing? Did the president-elect get some weird email from one of his favorite conspiracy-theory websites about China and Taiwan that made him think this was wise? At this point, no one knows for sure.

But as of last night, Trump gave every impression that he did this on purpose. On Twitter, the president-elect said, “Did China ask us if it was OK to devalue their currency (making it hard for our companies to compete), heavily tax our products going into their country (the U.S. doesn’t tax them) or to build a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea?  I don’t think so!”

As a candidate, Trump said he didn’t consider a trade war with China to be a big deal. In fact, in May his exact words were, “Who the hell cares if there’s a trade war?” Now that the election is over, he’s apparently pushing us closer to a confrontation for reasons that only appear obvious to Trump – like a child playing with matches that risk burning us all.

3. Maybe Trump’s corrupt. Taiwan isn’t just some random island is East Asia; it’s also of financial interest to the president-elect’s private-sector enterprise. The New York Times reported, “Newspapers in Taiwan reported last month that a Trump Organization representative had visited the country, expressing interest in perhaps developing a hotel project adjacent to Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport, which is undergoing a major expansion.”

The article added, that a sales manager overseeing Asia for Trump Hotels visited Taiwan just last month.

To put it mildly, it’s unsettling to think of the president-elect trashing four decades of U.S. foreign policy to help give his business interests a boost, but so long as Trump ignores his conflict-of-interest controversies, there’s no reason to think questions like these will go away.

As for the future, we’re collectively moving into unchartered waters. Americans will soon be led by an easily confused amateur, whose erratic behavior creates nothing but uncertainty. It won’t be the last time the Republican takes a reckless gamble, just as it won’t be the last time much of the world struggles to understand what this man is thinking.

Postscript: I’ve seen some comparisons between Trump overturning U.S. policy towards Taiwan and President Obama making a radical departure – away from bipartisan, decades-long policy – towards Cuba. If the latter is fine, why is the former considered so irresponsible?

A few reasons, actually. For one thing, U.S. policy towards Cuba was failing miserably, costing us financially and diplomatically. For another, given that Cuba is a small country 90 miles from American soil, not an Asian behemoth with the planet’s largest population and second largest economy, the consequences associated with such a change are dramatically different.

And finally, Obama’s shift was the result of a lengthy, carefully crafted process. No one had to wonder why the president was changing U.S. policy; no one asked if it was deliberate or an accident; and no one questioned whether Obama adopted a new approach to line his own pockets.