First, Trump wants the world to know he means to do things his own way. He has refused the intelligence briefings always offered a president-elect, a sign that he doesn’t value information or insight from the current foreign policy and intelligence establishment. As for China, Trump doesn’t care what was agreed in the past. While surrogates work carefully to explain what he does and doesn’t mean, the man himself has made clear he’ll make waves whenever he wants.
It’s not simply that Trump didn’t know that Beijing would be infuriated by a call with Taiwan’s president, the first publicly acknowledged conversation between U.S. and Taiwan chief executives since 1979. It’s that Trump quickly tweeted out the good news. "The President of Taiwan CALLED ME today to wish me congratulations on winning the Presidency. Thank you!" Beyond surprise and irritation over the call, China will be further provoked by Trump’s reference to Taiwan's Tsai Ing-wen as “president,” which suggests he recognizes Taiwan as an independent state.
Trump’s response to the criticism he’s gotten since the call shows that he’s as thin-skinned and fact-challenged as ever. Following restrained Chinese criticism of the call, Trump retaliated via Twitter. He accused China of devaluing its currency, while China’s leaders have worked hard to prop up the yuan’s value. He claimed that the U.S. “doesn’t tax” Chinese imports. In fact, the U.S. has imposed tariffs on Chinese steel, tires and solar panels.
This episode also shows that Trump is either not listening to advisors, given that many important foreign policy positions have not yet been filled, or that the ones he does listen to are reinforcing his worst instincts. He has also made clear that he intends to make policy without consulting, or even warning, U.S. allies.
Clearly, Trump wants to play games with the world’s most important bilateral relationship. “Who cares what China wants?” Trump’s supporters will ask. “Let China worry about what Americans want.” But Trump has demonstrated he’s willing to pick pointless fights with a country that has the motive and the means to fight back in ways that cost U.S. companies and U.S. workers. Trump grabbed the chance to play the tough guy, but what does the US gain from his chat with Tsai? No word from Team Trump.
This is a worrying precedent. Trump remains both impulsive and defensive, a bad combination for any leader. His Taiwan tweet is the first serious mistake of his presidency. Imagine how many more he’ll make even before he takes the oath of office.