Two days after Donald Trump created a diplomatic dispute with China over Taiwan, the president-elect took to Twitter on Sunday evening to criticise Beijing and defend his decision to speak with the Taiwanese president.
China issued a protest on Saturday after Mr Trump spoke on the phone with Tsai Ing-wen, the first such contact with a Taiwanese leader since the US severed diplomatic ties in 1979.
Although vice-president elect Mike Pence sought to play down the controversy on Sunday morning, describing the conversation as a “courtesy call”, Mr Trump used Twitter hours later to slam Chinese economic and foreign policies — the latest instance of the president-elect trying to apply the unconventional, improvised style from his election campaign to the world of diplomacy.
“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 US doesn’t tax them) or to build a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea?” he asked. “I don’t think so!”
The call between Mr Trump and Ms Tsai has left the world guessing whether the president-elect ignored diplomatic protocol by accident or whether he was signalling that the status of Taiwan would be a central part of his administration’s China strategy.
The phone conversation and Sunday’s tweets follow a series of calls with world leaders since the election when Mr Trump has appeared to improvise foreign policy positions, with little input from the government bureaucracy that handles such interactions.
We are entering into an era of shoot-from-the-lip foreign policy. All of these calls have demonstrated a combination of ignorance and some sort of nascent policy position
While some of Mr Trump’s supporters have welcomed his style as a refreshing break from establishment niceties, critics fear that the president-elect could blunder into a crisis through a mixture of lack of preparation and unwillingness to take advice.
“What we need to realise is that we are entering into an era of shoot-from-the-lip foreign policy,” said David Rothkopf, chief executive and editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy magazine. “All of these calls have demonstrated a combination of ignorance and some sort of nascent policy position.”
He added that Mr Trump “fails to realise that everything he does has a foreign policy consequence”, so that tweets about the New York Times are “seen by [president] Erdogan in Turkey as a sign that the US is less concerned about press freedom”.
John Kerry, US secretary of state, said he would “recommend” that Mr Trump get in touch with the state department before he speaks with world leaders.
“We have not been contacted before any of these conversations. We have not been requested to provide talking points,” he said on Sunday. “I do think there’s a value, obviously on having at least the recommendations, whether you choose to follow them or not is a different issue.”
Speaking with the Taiwanese president is a sensitive issue as China regards the island as a renegade province. For four decades, the US has enacted an uneasy compromise to help keep the peace, selling Taiwan arms to boost its defences, but refusing to have formal diplomatic relations that would anger Beijing.
With speculation mounting about the motives behind the call, Mr Pence said the Taiwanese leader had called to offer her congratulations. “It’s a little mystifying to me that President Obama can reach out to a murdering dictator in Cuba in the last year and be hailed as a hero for doing it and president-elect Donald Trump takes a courtesy call from a democratically elected leader in Taiwan and it’s become something of a controversy,” he said.
However, there is a group of conservative foreign policy specialists, some of whom are being considered for senior positions in the Trump administration, who have long pushed for the US to provide a more vocal defence of Taiwan and its democracy.
John Bolton, former US ambassador to the UN, who visited Mr Trump in New York on Friday, told Fox News at the weekend: “Honestly, I think we should shake the relationship up [with China] . . . Nobody in Beijing gets to dictate who we talk to. It’s ridiculous to think that the phone call upsets decades of anything.”
With diplomats from the region calling nervously to find out if the US is on the verge of a major policy shift, it was left to the Obama White House to make a clear statement that there was “no change” in the so-called “One China” policy. “Our fundamental interest is in peaceful and stable cross-Strait relations,” said Ned Price, a White House spokesman.
The potential for influential aides to nudge the president-elect into making sharp shifts in policy has been aggravated by the fact that Mr Trump has only received a small number of intelligence briefings since the election — something that most president-elects received daily. At the same time, the state department has had little involvement in providing support for the president-elect ahead of his calls with world leaders.
Instead, what has emerged from the readouts provided by other governments is an improvised, conversational style of engagement that at the minimum runs the risk of causing offence and at the extreme of creating new obligations for the US.
In a call with UK prime minister Theresa May, he said that “if you travel to the US, you should let me know” and in a call with Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan he said: “I am ready and willing to play any role that you want me to play”, which some in the region interpreted as a willingness to mediate between Pakistan and India.
“The White House and the state department are terrified about what this guy is going to do over the next six weeks,” said a former senior official in the Obama administration. “That is one reason why Obama has tried to offer so much help to Trump for the transition, because he is worried that the president-elect is flying blind.”
Even if Mr Trump decides not to make Taiwan a central issue, the mistrust that the call is likely to have generated in Beijing could become more important if the new administration adopts some of the tough trade measures on China that were promised on the campaign trail.
The Chinese foreign ministry issued a protest about the call. However, experts said Beijing’s reaction has been comparatively restrained, reflecting a desire to “educate” Mr Trump, rather than humiliate him, according to academic Shi Yinhong, an expert on US-China relations at Beijing’s Renmin University.
Mr Shi added that the call would increase the anxiety in Beijing about the new administration. “The Chinese government is not assuming that Trump is ignorant of the Taiwan issues,” he said.