China Seeks ‘Strategic Composure’ in Trump Era of Diplomacy

  • State-newspaper urges calm after president-elect’s Taiwan call
  • Country tries to avoid being provoked by critical tweets

QuickTake: Taiwan's Political Tightrope

The Communist Party’s flagship newspaper is urging Chinese leaders to keep cool heads and play the adult should Donald Trump continue to test ties in the run up to his inauguration as U.S. president next month.

A commentary published in the People’s Daily overseas edition on Tuesday said China must remain calm in response to “waves” of criticism after Trump announced his protocol-breaking chat with the president of Taiwan, which Beijing considers a province. The country had learned from decades of interaction with Washington, according to the front-page piece, which was headlined, “Handling Variables in China-U.S. Relations With Strategic Composure.”

“Some would argue that Trump’s out-of-the-line talk and behavior was meant to poke at China, and that the Chinese should retaliate. Otherwise he might think China is a soft persimmon, easy to pinch,” the commentary said. But the country “doesn’t throw a tantrum to strive for only temporary superiority, or to gain immediate gratification.”

The piece offered insight into China’s measured response since Trump’s Friday telephone conversation with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, which he followed up with tweets knocking Beijing over currency and trade policies. The call with Tsai flouted nearly four decades of U.S. policy against recognizing Taiwan’s sovereignty or allowing direct communication between top leaders.

To read why Taiwan-China ties can be shaken with one Trump call, click here

While China lodged a “solemn representation” and urged U.S. authorities to adhere to the so-called one-China principle, it stopped short of criticizing Trump. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi appeared to blame Tsai for the call, describing it as “little trick pulled off by Taiwan,” even though Trump advisers have said the call was planned in advance.

The approach showed China’s desire to contain the incident before Trump entered the White House or even appointed a secretary of state. Vice President-elect Mike Pence said the conversation was just a “moment of courtesy,” and that Trump would roll out his foreign policy agenda after Jan. 20.

“At this moment, I’ve been very impressed by the calm reaction of the Chinese leadership, which suggests a determination to see whether a calm dialogue can be developed,” former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said Monday at an event sponsored by the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations.

Kissinger, a key architect of the U.S.’s rapprochement with China more than four decades ago, met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Friday to discuss the relationship. He was scheduled to meet with Trump on Tuesday in New York.

‘New Direction’

Trump’s tweets and rhetoric are leaving foreign leaders uncertain whether they can trust what’s being said, which will have “very serious consequences” if it continues when he becomes president next month, said U.S. Representative Adam Schiff, of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.

“That’s going to have some very serious consequences because our friends and our adversaries do not know if the president means what he says,” Schiff said at a breakfast in Washington Tuesday hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. “It’s going to be important for the Chinese government to know whether a tweet or a phone call is a new direction of policy.”

‘Hawkish Elites’

China hasn’t always been known for diplomatic restraint, particularly when it believes its “core interests” were violated. A $6.4 billion U.S. arms sale to Taiwan in 2010 spurred China to summon the American ambassador, postpone a visit by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates and suspend military cooperation for almost a year.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang passed up more than a dozen chances to criticize Trump in a briefing Monday. “We will not speculate on what motivates President-elect Trump and his team into taking certain moves, but we will surely make ourselves clear if what they say concerns China,” Lu Kang said.

State media were less reserved. The English-language China Daily on Tuesday called Trump a “diplomatic rookie,” who could “expect some forgiveness even while shooting from the hip.” “But things will be different when he becomes president,” it said.

State media have also begun questioning whether Trump was being steered toward confrontation by his transition team, with the official Xinhua News Agency urging him Monday to “resist the light-headed calls for provocative and damaging moves on China by some hawkish political elites.” The People’s Daily similarly described him as surrounded by a “group of neo-con types who have strong strategic suspicions towards China.”

The commentary called on Chinese diplomats to have “firm and clear” communications with Trump’s transition team and explain that the two country’s interests are closely entwined. “It’s imperative to have grand vision to climb high and gaze far, and strategic composure to handle the situation calmly,” it said.

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