Trump’s Twitter Diplomacy Troubles US–China Relations

Trump’s Twitter Diplomacy Troubles US–China Relations
Photo Credit: Reuters/達志影像

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Dealing with the Trump presidency might be best seen as an exercise in operating in a state of permanent crisis management.

As President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration approached, tensions in the South China Sea have continued to evolve. In mid-December it became apparent that China is militarizing its newly built islands in the Spratly group. Soon after this became public, former Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa warned that the dispute might tear ASEAN apart. A few days later a Chinese Navy ship “stole” (or discovered, according to China) a U.S. unmanned underwater vessel (UUV) some 450 meters from a U.S. Navy oceanographic ship sailing off the Philippine coast.

The UUV incident occurred outside China’s nine-dash line territorial claim. The incident seemingly disregarded the procedures agreed upon in the U.S.–China Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, which have previously worked well in avoiding confrontations. Most importantly, it also marked the first direct intervention — in tweet form — by the Trump presidency into the South China Sea imbroglio.

These tweets suggested that the United States’ South China Sea policy under Trump will become more assertive, just as China’s policy did when President Xi Jinping took power.

Trump seems set to focus the U.S.–China relationship on “making deals.” He is expected to adopt a transactional approach that aims to gain particular near-term outcomes important to him. This approach appealed to at least some Chinese who saw Trump as “ a businessman who puts his commercial interests above everything else.

Trump’s transactional approach in the South China Sea might be almost reassuring to China given its experience of using the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands as bargaining chips in negotiations with Japan. But this bargaining with Japan occurred within a relatively conventional diplomatic framework. Trump’s approach appears markedly different for five reasons.

First, Trump’s real intentions are enigmatic. His signature diplomatic communication is a 140-character tweet that can confuse and obfuscate even simple issues. Trump’s tactic seems to be to let others decipher what he means and wants. This is not unlike China’s strategic objectives in the South China Sea, which have not been formally stated but left for others to discern. The same approach was evident in the UUV capture. But it will now be Xi reacting to what he imagines Trump wants — which may not necessarily be what Trump is actually seeking.

Second, Trump can tweet faster than the Chinese decision-making processes can make decisions. Indeed, multiple tweets about multiple issues may overwhelm China’s rather centralized governmental system. This may allow Trump to gain the initiative — or at least appear to.

This may shock a domestic Chinese audience used to China setting the agenda in the South China Sea. As Kai He has suggested Chinese leaders may well take risks if they feel they are losing the respect of the domestic audience as this may adversely affect political stability. Accordingly, Chinese leaders could escalate early in a Trump tweet-induced crisis if they become confused or worried. They may make poorly considered responses when driven by the pressures of a Twitter timeframe.

Third, for both leaders, domestic issues are perhaps the most important. For both leaders, jobs and growth are needed to maintain their domestic power base. Both leaders can also ruthlessly exploit nationalist emotions when necessary. South China Sea issues for either leader might be quickly linked to other more critical domestic matters.

The South China Sea is important for Xi’s China Dream but it is less important for the United States. Trump might therefore be willing to agree to a trade-off to gain some major American domestic goal. Or Trump may see the South China Sea as an area of special Chinese sensitivity that is worth pressuring China on in order to gain an advantage elsewhere.

Fourth, future South China Sea political maneuvres will likely play out very publicly, unlike some in the past. The global media now keenly follows Trump’s tweets as a major news source, often reading into his words the meaning they want to find. Trump continually plays to his electoral base as part of demonstrating he is a strong leader that puts America First. He may seem relentless in seeking constant public approval but the bully pulpit is important to his ability to favorably manipulate a hesitant Congress.

In this, Trump seems uncommonly comfortable exposing his administration’s unstructured decision-making processes, with powerful, semi-autonomous Cabinet secretaries and top aides acting independently and openly arguing over issues. It’s hard to see Xi taking a similar approach. For the U.S. domestic audience — and probably much of the world — China will appear closed, opaque, out-of-touch and left behind in most matters. In contrast, Trump’s rapid-fire decision making will be publicly displayed, albeit with all its failings.

Lastly, Trump’s strategy will have implications not just for China but also for US allies. There will be a premium on timely interjections to the Trump administration, and most likely also into the Twitter sphere. Sitting back and hoping for the best in a rapidly evolving situation may turn out poorly. There is now a real need to think ahead so as to be well prepared to take best advantage of sudden tweets and unexpected crises. Methodologies such as alternative futures, grand strategy and risk management may need reviving.

Dealing with the Trump presidency might be best seen as an exercise in operating in a state of permanent crisis management. Issues will emerge at breathtaking speed that have to be quickly resolved or forgotten, even though the long-term consequences for onlookers may be significant. The South China Sea will be one area where this decision making approach will play out — and probably sooner than later.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article from East Asia Forum. East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centered on the Asia Pacific region.

TNL Editor: Edward White