Trump's Taiwan phone call distracts from real issues over China
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Novice mistake or bold statecraft disguised as matter of fact event, President-elect Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpDems win from coast to coast Falwell after Gillespie loss: 'DC should annex' Northern Virginia Dems see gains in Virginia's House of Delegates MORE’s telephone conversation with Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-Wen was a historic break with U.S. policy, overturning 37 years of bipartisan uniformity and infuriating Beijing. 

Yet, China’s leadership presumably also puzzled by the President-elect’s actions and disinclined to exacerbate the situation provided a well-calculated exit in the form of a dismissive rebuke of Tsai Ing-Wen.  

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Labeling the Taiwanese leader as an instigator preserved the opportunity for Mr. Trump to define his nascent administration’s policy without either side losing face. Should the provocation have been unintended, Mr. Trump is now free to let the moment ease into the past. But will he or should he?

Absent a definite objective, antagonizing Beijing creates unnecessary risks, and is therefore unwise. Yet no foreign policy is immune from obsolescence — particularly one predicated upon a substantially different balance of power underlying the international system, designed to achieve objectives from a bygone era. And we now must ask if our fidelity to an earlier strategy is appropriate for a new circumstance.

When President Nixon started down the course of easing tensions with China in his first visit to Beijing in 1972 and later President Carter officially normalized relations in 1979, supplanting Taipei with Beijing in the U.S.-P.R.C. Joint Communique, the intent was straightforward: diminish the Soviet Union’s geopolitical position while midwifing China’s return to the community of free nations. 

And while not solely the result of this policy, both objectives have been achieved in spectacular fashion. The Soviet Union has long since ceased to exist, and China, now the United States’ third largest trading partner, underwent an economic liberalization that has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.  

Since that time however, by prolonging an almost unilateral détente, including such missteps as permitting China to free ride in the World Trade Organization, we have nurtured the rise of our most credible geostrategic adversary. Today China’s role in the world cannot be underestimated.

China has long since displaced Russia on the world stage, in terms of clout if not actual impact. And we must come to grips with the reality that this economic and military colossus still harbors resentment toward the United States and the liberal international order it created in the wake of World War II.

Worse, we have contributed to this outcome while allowing our own nation to be deindustrialized, hollowed out, and distracted. After 15 years of counterproductive meddling in the Middle East and 30 years of doubling down on one-sided trade agreements the United States’ position in the world, though still preeminent is clearing waning.

If we do not now hedge more sharply against China’s rise and push back on its efforts to reshape the East Asian map with its increasingly assertive maritime posture, when will we be able to?

How should our allies respond to a United States divided over whether its president-elect can speak to a foreign leader by phone? What possibility is there to build a reliable, mutually beneficial framework for the future of U.S.-China relations, while still viewing the world through the lens of the past?

These questions, and all prospective answers may be difficult to face, but failing to do so will only increase the size of the elephant in the room. The world will not wait for the United States to reconcile its internal political disputes, and China with a more cohesive political establishment may sense its patient, peaceful rise, has left it well positioned to benefit from anachronistic and poorly structured U.S. global policy still unaware of the current realities.

Lennon Stravato attended graduate school at New York University and manages the private equity investments of globally structured ultra high net worth family offices.


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