Beijing’s diplomats have been remarkably quiet after the election of Donald Trump, even though the president-elect has signaled his administration will pursue policies fundamentally disadvantageous to China.
Chinese leaders, some think, are merely laying in wait, but there are signs they have themselves been ambushed and still do not know how to react to Trump. Perhaps Erin Burnett put it best. “No one has ever talked to China like this before,” she said on her CNN show last month, in the wake of the president-elect taking a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen. “China doesn’t have a strategy to deal with this.”
Chinese leaders once had an extremely successful strategy. They let American presidential candidates rail against “China” and then challenge them early in their first months in office, throwing them off balance and setting the tone for the rest of their terms.
George W. Bush, for instance, faced a crisis on April 1 of his first year in the White House when a Chinese jet clipped the wing of a U.S. Navy EP-3 reconnaissance plane in international airspace over the South China Sea. Beijing then imprisoned 24 aviators for 11 days, successfully exacted what amounted to a public apology and a ransom, and completed the humiliation by stripping the Navy plane of its sensitive electronic gear and requiring it to be chopped into pieces.
Beijing tested his successor by harassing two unarmed Navy reconnaissance vessels, the Impeccable and the Victorious, in the South China and Yellow Seas in a series of dangerous incidents beginning March 2009. One of those incidents was so serious—the attempted severing of the towed sonar array from the Impeccable—that it constituted an attack on a U.S. vessel, in other words, an attack on the U.S. itself.
Bush and Obama, pursuing misguided approaches, tried to minimize China’s conduct. Both presidents avoided further confrontations with Beijing and throughout their terms looked and acted as if intimidated. During their administrations, Beijing continually undermined peace and stability in the region—and did so largely without America imposing costs for clearly unacceptable behavior.
Enter a new type of leader, Donald J. Trump. The willful president-elect did not wait for China to challenge him. On December 2, he took what is now known as “The Call” from Tsai.