Monday, December 12, 2016

The Consequences of the President of Taiwan and the President of the Philippines Congratulating D. Trump

12.12.2016 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Column: Politics
Region: Southeast Asia
Any event in any way associated with the president-elect of the United States Donald Trump is in the focus of the world media and often serves as the pretext for discussion about the prospective developments of the global political game as a whole as well as of its major important parts.
Who called D. Trump with congratulations and in what order, what was said, whips up the keenest interest and sets public fortune telling by ‘reading the tealeaves’ in motion.
This media boom is absolutely understandable since it is a question, first of all, of the change of power in the country that still continues to be the main player in global processes; and, secondly, of the extraordinary personality of the new US President who said a lot of unorthodox things during the election campaign.
You only need to take into account a number of important considerations, such as:
- Although the election campaign rhetoric was not born in a vacuum, but specifically reflects certain objective processes, it will not necessarily (and, in particular, fully) be realized in the real policy of the winner of the elections when the importance of gaining the attention of ‘various segments of electorate’ vanishes;
- For the still acting US public administration system, D. Trump remains a private person, who may go on to ‘indulge himself’, however, not in the same scale. The current Government will ‘correct’ him as happened concerning the call of the president of Taiwan Tsai Ing-wen, which we shall discuss in more detail below;
- It is safe to say that the president-elect has not finished forming his foreign policy yet. This policy will not even be presented in its final form by the inauguration date. It will only be possible to speak more or less reasonably about trends in American foreign policy a few months after the inauguration.

However, keeping in mind these reservations, let us yet comment on the two calls to D. Trump, from (let’s pay special attention to this important fact) the aforementioned Tsai Ing-wen, as well as from the President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte. NEO has repeatedly paid attention to both of these politicians for obvious and very important reasons.
The very fact that they came to power in 2016 (i.e. the year D. Trump was also elected) reflected the contradictory tendencies in the development of the situation in East Asia, where the Philippines and Taiwan are located. The conflicting relations between the two major world powers (the US and China) in this very region crucially affect the situation.
The US may count the election of Tsai Ing-wen as president of Taiwan one of its regional achievements (and failures of China) albeit with significant reservations; while the situation with R. Duterte seems to be (again, very tentatively) the opposite.
The continuing uncertainty of the future outlook of US-China relations determines the conventionality of the previous formula.
In spite of Beijing’s clear appeals to its geopolitical opponent to bestow relations with a more beneficial nature for the two leading players (so-called ‘win-win’ games), in recent years these relations have been inexorably moving towards a ‘zero sum game’, where the benefit of one side means the equally weighty loss by the other.
It seems, however, that this negative trend has not fully cemented itself in and its further course is not preliminary predetermined. Much will depend on the foreign policy vector of the new US administration.
Apparently (in contrast to the outgoing administration), D. Trump is likely to be more concerned by economic relations with China (‘undervalued yuan, transfer of American manufacturing to China’) than military political ones.
If US experts convincingly explain to the new president that, in spite of the validity of certain claims the US may have against China, it would be impossible to ‘turn the situation around’ in this sphere quickly, then why should D. Trump not embark on constructive dialogue on the content of the existing problems with China.
In this case, the prospect of ‘zero sum game’ in US-China relations is reduced and the severity of the issue of particular election results in the target countries (like the Philippines or Taiwan), as well as of the foreign policy steps of their new leaders will sharply decrease.
It therefore seems premature to make any serious conclusions from the routine procedure of congratulating the new leader of the country that remains the major global player on his victory in the elections.
For sure, D. Trump did not have to switch on his answering machine (“I am not at home, please, leave a message”), when the secretary told him that the President of Taiwan was on the phone on December 3rd.
Of course, China could not stay silent regarding this call, especially as this was the first contact between the leaders of the United States and Taiwan since 1979 (when the US stopped formal diplomatic ties with Taipei).
However, the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s response (‘Tsai Ing-wen wanted to cozy up’) was rather reserved, which leaves the new American president freedom for political manoeuvring in the Taiwan Strait that is so extremely sensitive for Beijing.
The explanation released the same day from the (still acting) National Security Council of the (still acting) President, that the USA will continue to adhere to all bilateral agreements with China regarding Chinese Statehood (in particular, ‘the One-China policy’), may be regarded as a hidden jab directed at D. Trump.
The ‘classic’ response of the latter was not long in coming. Once again, his political opponents were actually suspected of duplicity.
Announcing that Tsai Ing-wen only called him on her own initiative to congratulate him on his victory in the elections, he pointed out ‘the beam in the eye’ of the outgoing administration. An example thereof is the deal concluded a year ago on the sale of US military equipment to Taiwan for $1.8 billion, which caused a negative reaction in Beijing.
As for the brief telephone conversation between R. Duterte and D. Trump (), then its content confirms the validity of our recommendations not to rush into allegations that the Philippines’ foreign policy is making an ‘anti-American turnaround’.
The view that there may well be a thaw in relations between the US and the Philippines under the new American president was also confirmed. Look at D. Trump’s support of the ‘specific’ methods R. Duterte used in the fight against drug trafficking.
Finally, all the aforementioned allows us to note once again the extreme complexity and uncertainty as well as changeability of the situation in East Asia.
In these circumstances, it is a thankless task to forecast its development looking at random or minor facts (like the aforementioned phone calls).

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

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