In December the Trump transition team sparked sudden debate over the longstanding “One China” policy when they arranged and accepted a congratulatory phone call from the Taiwanese president. After loudly defending the move, however, the story stayed mostly quiet between then and now. That is, until this week when we learned that the Trump administration has completely reversed course for no apparent reason.
This gives us a stark contrast in approaches to exercising diplomatic influence. On one side, we have a newly elected president who decides to assume a bold and aggressive posture on established international norms, in full public view, with no clearly defined objective in sight except perhaps to appear “tough on China.” On the other side, we have a seasoned international figure who largely stays out of the fray and allows the issue to disappear for a month or so, until – like magic – we learn from public statements that the two leaders shared a phone call and agreed to abide by the old norms after all.
The details of the conversation are equally indicative. In a highly uncharacteristic turn, we learn that President Trump’s own words were carefully orchestrated in advance.
“I would like you to uphold the ‘One China’ policy,” Mr. Xi said to Mr. Trump in a scripted exchange.
“At your request, I will do that,” replied Mr. Trump.
The deferential tone is also noteworthy in itself. Those who argued that Trump’s maneuver with Taiwan would earn him a bargaining chip over China must be left wondering what exactly has been bargained.
White House officials declined to specify what if anything Mr. Trump got out of relenting on the One China policy.
That, my friends, is soft power in action. You don’t have to be an expert in international diplomacy to know what it looks like when done right.