In recent days, US President-elect Trump has received criticism both domestically and internationally over his recent phone call from Taiwan President, Tsai Ing-wen.
Given that the US has recognized a “One China” policy since 1979, what could be the meaning of Trump’s latest actions–defying decades of existing apparent political protocol?
This is a broad question that will be further delineated from an apolitical perspective using a “negotiator’s lens.” As a self-professed negotiator, Trump has taken the view that “everything’s negotiable,” the following reasons could underly the President-elect’s decision to speak directly with Taiwanese President, Tsai Ing-wen.
1. Why would Trump receive a call from Taiwan’s Tsai, given the potential for antagonizing China?
The answer is simple. Trump spoke with Tsai to increase Trump’s bargaining power over China.
From a negotiation perspective, China has generally viewed its nearly four decade “One China” policy with the US as a given. The One China Policy–negotiated by Kissinger and Nixon in the 1970s–is a policy that is viewed with great weight and pride by Beijing. After all, it is arguably because of the US-PRC’s One China policy that allowed China to definitively assert itself from a regional to a global purview as a diplomatic–as well as economic and military–powerhouse.
By following long-held diplomatic protocol, Trump most likely took the view that the US would gain relatively little, if anything at all, as a new negotiator-in-chief. Even with the One China policy in a status quo state under the current Obama administration, tensions between the US and PRC have, if anything, escalated in the form of increased military tensions and posturing both in and outside the Asia-Pacific region.
Why not then—from Trump’s negotiator’s mindset perspective—remind Beijing not to take the One China policy for granted? Why not remind Xi Jingping of the possible, albeit remote, risk of the US increasingly and purposely, as a negotiation strategy, taking greater notice of Taiwan? Even if such overtures from Trump towards Taiwan fall slightly short of an outright reneging on the One China policy, such negotiation tactic can increase the US’s negotiation power vis-a-vis Beijing. This could translate into greater terms and conditions for the US regarding things it wants from China now or in the future.
As a rough analogy, imagine you are a partner for a large firm undergoing a perfunctory yearly performance review. Under normal circumstances, your mind would normally be preoccupied with the possible upsides that you hope to receive from your other partners (negotiation counterparties), such as the amount of your yearly bonus. But instead, imagine that the firm’s partners instead tell you that there’s a chance that you could be fired. Thereafter, after you go through various nightmare scenarios in your head of you looking for a new job, finding ways to support your family, and/or seek ways to live on your current savings, the partners thereafter inform you, “Well, congratulations, after some internal contemplation, you’re not fired after all; you get to keep your job, with all its current rights and obligations.” The outcome is still the same–the status quo. But surely, you will agree that such an unexpected and shocking review process will now serve as a renewed impetus towards dealmaking on behalf of the firm in the future.
2. Why did Trump not follow traditional diplomatic protocol as suggested by certain experts and bureaucrats, including the US State Department?
Tradition and protocol is good until it is not. In other words, the benefits of diplomatic tradition and protocol may, at a certain point, be outweighed by its constraints. This type of thinking is why so many of the best and brightest minds from around the world have constantly sought to seek US shores, rather than other countries, for jobs, education, and citizenship. It is because traditions and protocols that originally acted as fundamental pillars within certain societies suddenly became weighted tipping points and constraints in terms of limitations on individual and economic freedoms. This was certainly the case with the US colonies when it was ruled by the UK monarchy, leading to the Declaration of Independence and the formation of a new republic.
As a political presidential candidate, Trump represented the epitome of an unorthodox political candidate. Trump’s supporters liked him not because he followed protocol in terms of his speeches and rhetoric, but to the contrary, because he challenged the norm, status quo, and political elitism.
It should thus be no surprise then that Trump, now as President-elect, is trying to “think different” by not following the typical dog-and-pony show that certainly can exist in bureaucratic circles in Washington, DC, Beijing, and elsewhere.
Why do such protocols exist in Washington, DC? From a negotiation theory perspective, it is based on a “not-to-lose” negotiation mindset, known as a dispute settlement negotiation (DSN) mindset, as opposed to a “play-to-win” negotiation mindset, known as a deal-making negotiation (DMN) mindset.
A “not-to-lose” DSN mindset is often the mindset of cautious bureaucrats who fear risk rather than seek opportunity. Such a mindset is often based on a working assumption that the status quo (par) is as good as things can generally get. However, such extreme caution can lead to the tangible risk of missed opportunities and gains by taking a “play-to-win” DMN mindset–the type of dealmaking mindset that President-elect Trump proclaims to have, and appears to be taking based from his past business dealmaking experience.
3. Could Trump’s perceived lack of possible diplomatic predictability lead to “lost in translation” communications between the US and its allies and foes?
The short answer is yes. However, the rest of the world will adjust. This may seem somewhat pompous and arrogant, but it is true. The US, in the era of Pax Americana, is the world leader in terms of military, economic, and diplomatic might. For many countries, particularly non-liberal democracies, the election of a potentially new US president every four years is often perceived as a relatively frequent affair compared to the potential life-long tenure of an undemocratically elected dictator, king, or military ruler. And with what is often the case with an incoming US president from a competing political party, such new president will not only be busy trying to undo his predecessor president, but also have a unique personality and style while in the Oval Office, and thus, in communicating with world leaders.
Presidential candidate Trump has already used very direct language during the course of his 2016 campaign, including those directly aimed against Beijing. But Beijing is so far not in apparent panic mode. So far, China’s leaders have more or less taken a “wait and see” patient approach–a wise, strategic move. The world should follow suit.
Maybe President Trump will adjust his language, tenor, and approach once in the White House, maybe not. But one virtue of being the world’s most powerful man in the world’s most powerful nation, is that the world will adjust, if anything because the world has little choice but to adjust to the style of a new US president.