President-elect Trump’s call with Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen was calculated, but how well? (More)

“They knew that there would be reaction and potential blowback”

The Washington Post’s Anne Gearan, Philip Rucker, and Simon Denyer report today that the call was not a spur-of-the-moment decision:

It was planned weeks ahead by staffers and Taiwan specialists on both sides, according to people familiar with the plans.

Immediately after Trump won the Nov. 8 election, [Trump] staffers compiled a list of foreign leaders with whom to arrange calls. “Very early on, Taiwan was on that list,” said Stephen Yates, a national security official during the presidency of George W. Bush and an expert on China and Taiwan. “Once the call was scheduled, I was told that there was a briefing for President-elect Trump. They knew that there would be reaction and potential blowback.”

And just in case there might not be enough blowback, President-elect Trump amped up the tension on Twitter yesterday:

Conducting foreign policy via Twitter reeks of junior high school. Just sayin’.

“The ‘one China’ principle is the political foundation of China-US relations”

On Saturday, CNN reported that China has already protested:

“We have noticed relevant reports and lodged solemn representation with the relevant side in the United States,” said a statement Saturday from China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang.

“I must point out that there is only one China in the world and Taiwan is an inseparable part of the Chinese territory … The ‘one China’ principle is the political foundation of China-US relations.

“We urge the relevant side in the US to adhere to the ‘one China’ policy, abide by the pledges in the three joint China-US communiques, and handle issues related to Taiwan carefully and properly to avoid causing unnecessary interference to the overall China-U.S. relationship.”

Earlier Saturday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi labeled the phone call “a shenanigan by the Taiwan side” when he was asked about it on the sidelines of a foreign policy seminar.

“The ‘one China’ policy is the cornerstone of a healthy China-U.S. relationship. I hope this political foundation won’t be disrupted or damaged,” he said.

Yet the ubiquitous Kellyanne Conway dismissed concerns, per the Washington Post link above:

“All he did was receive a phone call,” Conway told reporters Sunday at Trump Tower in New York. “Everybody should just calm down. He’s aware of what our nation’s policy is.”

Maybe so. But I doubt it.

‘Bermuda Triangles’

Back in the early 1980s, I was stationed at Marine Corps Headquarters in D.C. I was a lowly admin clerk, and part of my job was to sort and deliver the incoming mail for my office. Each morning’s mail included a media packet: photocopies of military-relevant newspaper and magazine articles released that day, and I was supposed to scan the headlines and flag articles for the officers and senior NCOs in my office.

One day the media packet included a magazine article – perhaps from Foreign Policy, though I’m not sure – about what the author called the ‘Bermuda Triangles’ of foreign relations. He focused on two examples: the U.S., USSR, and China; and the U.S., China, and Taiwan. He argued that ‘Bermuda Triangles’ embody tense relationships … but the relationships tend to be stable because no party wanted to risk upsetting the balance.

The author wrote that, before President Nixon’s trip to China in 1972, China and the USSR has fairly close ties as the world’s two largest communist governments. But U.S.-Chinese thaw raised Russian suspicions of Beijing, and Soviet-Chinese relations cooled … forming a foreign policy ‘Bermuda Triangle.’

Once that had formed, any U.S. policy shift to substantially reduce U.S.-Soviet tensions would likely increase U.S.-Chinese tensions. Similarly, any U.S. policy shift to substantially reduce U.S.-Chinese tensions would likely increase U.S.-Soviet tensions. Likewise with any Soviet policy shift vis-à-vis China or the U.S., and any Chinese policy shift vis-à-vis the U.S. or USSR.

Once upon a game….

Back then I was an avid strategy gamer, and the notion of foreign policy ‘Bermuda Triangles’ inspired a simple solution to a vexing design problem: how to simulate the network of relationships in multi-party strategy games.

The idea of triangles inspired a six-sided diagram that I called the Sentiment Wheel, and it elegantly captured that network-of-relationships problem. At any point in the game, each party would be at one of the six points on the wheel, and its relationships to the other parties depended on their relative positions:

  • Friendly – Both parties occupy the same point.
  • Friendly-Neutral – Two parties occupy adjacent points.
  • Unfriendly-Neutral – Two parties are two-points apart.
  • Unfriendly – Two parties occupy opposite points.

Thus, in the diagram at the top of the page:

  • The U.S. and European Union are Friendly-Neutrals.
  • The U.S. and Taiwan are Friendly-Neutrals.
  • The U.S. and China are Unfriendly-Neutrals.
  • The U.S. and Russia are Unfriendly-Neutrals.
  • Russia and China are Unfriendly-Neutrals.
  • Russia and the European Union are Unfriendly.
  • China and Taiwan are Unfriendly.

I didn’t include Japan, South Korea, North Korea, or any other nations. In reality, there would be more than six points, and perhaps an inner ring representing less inter-party tension. In theory, I could scan history and news articles to place every nation in the world on such a diagram. But let’s keep it as simple as possible …

Anything Changes Everything

… which is still surprisingly complex, and probably far more so than President-elect Trump or his China hawk advisors want to believe.

He and they seem to want the U.S. to move closer to Taiwan, which I’ve placed in the upper-right point on the wheel. Here’s the diagram again, with the proposed shift indicated by an arrow:


Obviously, such a move would push us farther from China – from Unfriendly-Neutral nearer to Unfriendly – and that’s what the China hawks want.

But China is the European Union’s #2 overall trading partner. Thus, a U.S. shift toward Taiwan – and away from China – is also a shift away from the European Union.

Meanwhile, Russia and China remain uneasy rivals, as they have been since 1972. So a U.S. shift toward Taiwan – and away from China – is also a shift toward Russia.

Now think “NATO” instead of “European Union,” and the broader consequences of a U.S. shift toward Taiwan look ominous indeed … especially given President-elect Trump’s comments on Russia and NATO during the campaign. And NATO military officers have not forgotten.

It may seem far-fetched to link a telephone call between Taipei and New York City with Russian adventurism in the Baltic. But what the Bush Administration never grasped – and what the Bush-era hawks now advising Trump still don’t grasp – is this: In foreign policy, Anything Changes Everything

So yeah, Trump’s advisors can say they’ve thought this through. But if the history of recent GOP foreign policy is any guide – think: Iraq War – they haven’t thought it through nearly as well as they believe.


Image Credit – Flags: Wikimedia, Wikipedia, European Union; Text and Composition: Crissie Brown (


Good day and good nuts