Saturday, December 03, 2016

Tsai calls Trump, World Commentariat IQ drops 50 points

It's long, and I'll be updating as I work through the evening....

As you can see from the pic above, I spent a lovely day out in Miaoli and the hills around Taichung with three dear friends on bikes. Went to a famous farm where they have integrated ducks into the farm's pest management system and talked about really important and useful things, like settlement ponds, and duck diets, and raids by local monkeys, and how the health of freshwater shrimp can be used to monitor the health of the water ecology on the farm. Then we all retired to the farmhouse for tea and rice wine. Ok, rice wine. I mean, I think tea might have been served, but don't quote me on that. Then we rode back to Taichung along the Da-an River under a brilliant blue sky, and stopped for a bowl of mango ice on the way home.

It doesn't get any better than that.

So you can imagine my totally mellow state of mind when I returned home in the afternoon to find that the international media had melted down and commentators were in an uproar because President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan had been on the phone with President-elect Trump of the United States. My inbox is filled with messages, Twitter is like a house on fire, and Facebook is the Kingdom of Attempted Snark. I immediately got myself a large cup of coffee to get properly caffeinated so I could cope with this shitstorm, then spent some quality time with my golden retriever so I could interact with a loving, sapient being before taking on the media.

All I can say is: I wish Trump would call Tsai every day, so we could witness again and again how irredeemably stupid the international media is. As my net-friend Eric Pickett noted:
it's amazing to see how well trained the international media is to carry Beijing's water. China doesn't even need to release as much as a press statement, and the media is mindlessly anticipating Beijing's talking points.
Yup. The Guardian says that Trump angers Beijing with provocative phone call. Note that nothing that China does ever angers anyone. Once again, the framing is that the US and Taiwan are being "provocative" -- poor put upon China! We're used to that, on this blog. As my man Michal Thim, one of the most quietly funny people I know, observed on Twitter:
Michal Thim (廷米賀) ‏@michalthim
Somewhere in Zhongnanhai, people are LMAO out of excitement that they managed to convince everyone that phone call is radical escalation
I and others have written on the way the international media serves Beijing by claiming actions are "provocative" and "sure to anger Beijing" ... I sure wish the media would simply report what happened without giving us the breathless analyses of ZOMG THE END IS NIGH. Apparently Rachel Maddow, who as a good progressive really ought to be celebrating this phone call to the head of democracy with no guns and a world-leading national health insurance program, said on national TV that "this is how wars start." On Twitter otherwise intelligent people who are sometimes treated as experts were actually speculating about how Beijing might blockade Taiwan. My friend Sean Su sighed on Facebook:
It's interesting that Obama seeks peace with Cuba and everyone goes "Awesome". But Trump takes a call of congratulations from a democratic nation that provides thousands of US jobs and the US media goes nuts.
Julia Famularo laffed from her perch in Honolulu, lucky lady:
So, when #China (Xi) and #Taiwan (Ma) meet, it's a "historic breakthrough," but when PEOTUS makes a cordial call to #Taiwan, it's a crisis?
Leta Hong Fincher, the author of Leftover Women and always a good source of insightful snark, snarked:
‏@LetaHong Leta Hong Fincher洪理达
All this trouble is because Tsai never married or had children, of course
...referring to the time the state media attacked Tsai.

Amidst all these warnings of the impending apocalypse, what did China actually say? Well, Beijing at first said it was another "trick" of Tsai's and reiterated its boilerplate stance (Quartz). In words, it said... nothing at all important. As I was writing this, it had made a "solemn representation" to the US, also boilerplate whenever something happens that might raise Taiwan's status (Beijing complains to US, Beijing blasts call). This is common -- I noted in August how the media notes that "X will anger China" but when nothing happens, the media never reports: nothing happened. Thus, readers in US, clueless about Taiwan relations, assume things have gone to hell, when in fact, they are as ok as they ever are.

Indeed, the media slant is not to ask: what does this mean for our relations with a fellow democracy? but ZOMG What is this going to do to our relations with Beijing?

One way to read the media brouhaha is to observe how incompetent the media is, and how it does Beijing's work for it in referring to tensions that don't exist. For all of us who watch Taiwan, that is standard. *sigh* For example, many of us had a good laff about this from Jia Lynn Yang, who is WaPo's Deputy National Security Editor:
Jia Lynn Yang ‏@jialynnyang 11h11 hours ago
Just got back from a week in Taiwan. Tensions with China are really high, so this is just extraordinary. 1/
Didn't you notice those high tensions? I was dodging falling bombs all day on the bicycle. Really sucked.

...But there's another way to think about it: the media are also signaling China about how it could/should react. If China doesn't react strongly, the media won't be validated (they will then say nothing about their failure). Consider Evan Medeiros' words in The Atlantic:
The Chinese leadership will see this as a highly provocative action, of historic proportions,” Evan Medeiros, former Asia director at the White House National Security Council, told the FT. “Regardless if it was deliberate or accidental, this phone call will fundamentally change China’s perceptions of Trump’s strategic intentions for the negative. With this kind of move, Trump is setting a foundation of enduring mistrust and strategic competition for U.S.-China relations.”
Medeiros was Obama's Asia czar and would have had high position in the Clinton Administration. He rotated out of the Obama Administration to the Eurasia group, which does business in China, and there he is in FT and Atlantic quoted as if he never worked for a firm which does business with China (just like Henry Kissinger, you've made it when the media never mentions your business interests). Think he is signaling China about how it should react? Your guess is as good as mine, but a strong reaction would benefit Medeiros' friends and hurt Trump. No conflict of interest there!

In other words, congratulations, media, you just gave China permission to go to its limit.

Indeed, the Chinese initially said (WaPo):
Asked about Trump’s call during a conference on international affairs in Beijing early Saturday, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, called it a “small action” that “cannot change China’s standing in international society.”

The breach of protocol will “not change the One China policy that the U.S. government has supported for many years,” he said. “The One China principle is the foundation for healthy development of ­Sino-U.S. relations. We don’t wish for anything to obstruct or ruin this foundation.”
It was only later after the media shitstorm that they apparently realized that they had support from US media and anti-Trump folks, and that they could really run with this. Now they are doing full on diplomatic press, with ambassador summoned, etc. Remember they actually summoned the US ambassador last year over the SCS FONOPs, and in 2014 over cybercrime accusations, and in 2010 over Obama's meeting with the Dalai Lama. Summoning the ambassador is normal, almost an annual ritual, whenever China's dreams of expansion are challenged, and essentially meaningless. But it will probably make a great noise in the media.

China chooses actions that play the western media for publicity, but have little concrete effect. They've learned well from the international media...

...and now we will see whether the Trump Administration's China policy will be shaped by "China being angry" the way Obama's was (Ruh-roh, better not do X because it will make China angry!). Right now it looks like Trump is going to be more focused on the Middle East. But China's response could change that... which is why it probably won't amount to much.

ADDED: The widespread media bias against Trump was evident in the reporting and comments: everyone assumed Trump had wildly and randomly made this call. Actually it was negotiated and agreed on and discussed among his advisers and the Taiwan side for some time beforehand. But so many observers assumed it was a spur of the moment, unconsidered thing....

The Atlantic piece also leaves the reader with the incorrect impression that the US position is that Taiwan is part of China -- the US position is that Taiwan's status is undetermined, and gives the usual incorrect presentation of the 1992C. The Atlantic was hardly alone in those errors. CNN several times stated that Taiwan was part of China, and of course Huffington Post erroneously claimed that "The United States and most of the international community acknowledge China’s claim of sovereignty over Taiwan." The US acknowledges, but does not recognize, China's desire to annex Taiwan.

Trump referred to the "President of Taiwan" in his tweet. Some people observed that Trump talked to 3 heads of state today but only tweeted about Tsai, signaling he knew its importance (yes, for the next four years, people will be checking Trump's tweets the way medieval doctors checked the King's urine). According to local papers, listening in were presidential office spokesman Alex Huang, NSC head Joseph Wu, and FM David Lee. Liberty Times claimed the call was facilitated by Stephen Yates, who is a Taiwan expert, but he apparently denied this. It was Tsai who called, but both sides worked it out beforehand.

The KMT first blasted it. UDN, close to the KMT, said it was a bad idea. Then that article was taken down and the new line came down: the KMT thanked Trump for supporting the Republic of China. LOL.

What do I think? This makes me very happy. Very happy that the President elect of the United States put Taiwan on the radar, even for a moment, with something very positive. Very happy that we might see meaningful positive change in Taiwan policy from the new Administration, and hopefully, in Asia policy after the dilatory, conflicting, and timid policies of the Obama years.

Hey, American progressives! The future President of the United States called the head of a state that directly elects its president, which has a world leading national health insurance program, no guns, and may soon legalize gay marriage. Check your values: which side are you on here?

I've put some comments from the Nelson Report below. Will add more stuff later tonight as it comes in, but I just want to add a final comment from someone on Facebook:
Yeah, isn't it great that President Obama, paragon of progressive values and the rule of law,... finally said "To hell with the Chinese, I'm picking up the phone and calling President Tsai!" Oh, sorry. That was Trump.

SUMMARY: absolutely stunning event, as president-elect Trump personally conducted a phone call with Taiwan's president Tsai...the first such presidential level US-Taiwan direct communication since "normalization" in 1979.

While its true that both the Bush and Obama NSC's, and some St. Dept. level officials have met face-to-face with the DPP's Tsai and her predecessor, the KMT's Ma...but never a president-to-president event of any kind since Jimmy Carter signed the deal with Deng Xiaoping.

Taking such a step now, without careful thought and preparation for possible outcomes, including a dangerous over-reaction and/or miscalculation by China, basically leaves speechless Loyal Reader sources still around late on a Friday.

Once again we recall Newt Gingrich several months ago: "The problem with Trump is he doesn't know that he doesn't know..."

It's inconceivable that NSC and St. Dept. professionals would have let such a call be accepted, or placed, without a full brief to Trump on the potential for Chinese misunderstanding, miscalculation, and over-reaction.

Any such briefing would have noted the "missile diplomacy" crisis over the 1996 "visa" fight, and the enormous difficulties caused US-China relations under the Bush presidency by then-Pres. Chen.

Finally...even if the risks were deemed acceptable in US-China relations terms...a properly staffed discussion would have worked through the "message" intended by Trump, lest Beijing interpret the phone call as a signal that the US is about to challenge the fundamental basis of US-China diplomatic and stratgegic relations...

One expert we spoke with frankly doubted Trump was aware of much if any of the above, and speculated:

"He likely thought taking the call was just another form of his delight in not being 'politically correct'. If this kind of thing persists...god help us."

Here's the FT version, while we all wait on some facts over the weekend, and hope that Xi Jinping decides to chalk this one up as a rookie mistake, and not fighting words:

Don't miss the comments below! And check out my blog and its sidebars for events, links to previous posts and picture posts, and scores of links to other Taiwan blogs and forums!


Grant said...

Watching the media react to this is quite astonishing. I didn't vote for Trump, but this is unintentionally a good move by him. China's attitude towards Taiwan is ridiculous, we shouldn't pander to it.

Jerome Besson said...

Not so fast. Just wait…
........till DOS officials get a hold of President Trump in the Oval Office....
............ and China throws a hissy fit like the Apr. 1, Hainan incident.

Anonymous said...


I agree with these comments and your report.

My initial reaction was that Trump's move is helpful but carries risks depending on whether he is prepared and consistent with robust followthrough, or if he simply forgets and flip-flops when the inevitable Chinese hissy-fit comes.

Consistency doesn't seem to be Trumps forte; but even if it's the latter of these two scenarios, it still is a useful insofar as Trump's sheer unpredictability should make China nervous and careful. Trump's shameless knack for keeping people guessing and uncertain is good when faced with China's shameless hissy-fits. By contrast, the boring and cerebral consistency of US policy vis a vis China and Taiwan over the past decade (or decades) has been happily abused by the Chinese.

Much as I hate to say it as a rational individual, Trump's more unpredictable version is probably better when it comes to US-China. At the same time, he seems to be surrounded by pretty strong Taiwan supporters in the US, whether for the right (e.g. support democratic ally) or wrong reasons (e.g. sell more weapons)

Trump's willingness to call "bullshit!" and cut through decades of accumulated US policy mistakes vis a vis Taiwan is a good thing. The communication channels preferred by timid US politicians since 1979 is not "policy"; it is convention or habit. Not only that, it is a bad habit in support of an absurd policy which is a holdover of 70 years of accumulated foreign policy mistakes vis a vis China and Taiwan.

Anyway, a key will be to make sure the US administration is ready to follow through robustly, as there will be drama from China. And Taiwan needs to keep its head and the best interests of Taiwan democracy at heart throughout.

Which is why I was very encouraged by another piece of news today with less coverage: the US House of Representatives made a substantive move to include US-Taiwan military exchanges in the new Defense spending bill. ( It still has to go through Senate, but anyway this is good: I might be reading too much into it, but it should mean that Trump's call was indeed carefully coordinated to ensure backup and follow-through with simultaneous congressional support.

That means it was not just some random shoot-from-the-hip whim by Trump in isolation. It was also clearly not a "timid ploy by Taiwan" either. It started in the US.

It was also separately reported by Politico that, in the current "The Apprentice - White House Version" rumor mill, John Bolton met with Trump on the same day. (

Taken together, it was a big Friday. It almost looks like a strong, thoughtful, and coordinated pro-Taiwan move by Trump, with experienced input from Bolton and his circle of Taiwan supporters and coordinated action with a Republican controlled Congress.

That might be too optimistic. But whatever it is, Trump's call was not whimsical.

This could all be random coincidence filtered through my lens of wishful pro-Taiwan thinking; but I like this version where Trump's administration and Congress surprises us all on the upside with robust and well-prepared pro-Taiwan support ... it's much better than the alternative of a clueless whimsical contradictory narcissist crony misogynist racist unreliably tweeting foreign policy with his eyes closed.

Yes, I like my optimistic version of the President Elect much better. :)

For Tsai: keep calm, keep your head, capitalize on opportunities where they arise, keep Taiwan's interests first at all times, continue to be smart and gutsy as you are so far, at least from a foreign policy perspective (I'm less impressed with her timid cabinet on domestic issues so far). And good luck!

Anonymous said...

Thank you Michael,

I was waiting all day for your reaction as I watched normally reasonable people step in line with dogma without questioning the hipocrisy of what they were saying or retweeting.

It's both frustrating and saddening.

Jack said...

It was interesting to see the subtle changes in the BBC's language in their article throughout the day. This morning, it stated that the US "supported the 'One China' principle", however it now says that the US "expresses its support for the 'one country, two systems' concept, which states that Taiwan is part of China."

Overlooking the fact we all know the US does neither, I wonder what prompted the BBC to go even further down the path of insanity.

Jack E. Chan said...

Good on you for writing this. Much needed perspective.

Unknown said...

The media has been pushing the "China is the Future" narrative since the 90s. Demanding we always tiptoe and kowtow around them. They also hate Trump. And I think that pretty much explains the reaction.

Anonymous said...

The problem with this commentary is that it seriously overestimates Trump. He is a completely untrustworthy and nefarious individual who has consistently expressed anti-democratic, racist, and misogynist views. He has also repeatedly shown admiration and love for totalitarian leaders and governments throughout the world. Americans put everything he does under a microscope for a reason, namely, it is not clear what his intentions are or even if he is sane. As for Taiwan, people who believe he cares about democracy in Taiwan, or for that matter democracy anywhere in the world, are likely in for a rude awakening. Those who believe he has any love for the Taiwanese people (other than as customers for his planned hotels in Taoyuan) are also likely to be disappointed.

Anonymous said...


As a Taiwanese American, I absolutely support democracy and international recognition for Taiwan, but the fact that POTUS made a sharp turn in foreign policy directions UNEXPECTEDLY is indeed scary and concerning at least for Americans, especially when no one knows if he will be acting like this on a regular basis in the next four years, hence the media fallout. It's not just about being tough towards China and preaching democracy, it's also about not making historically unprecedented diplomatic decisions without I don't know maybe talking to the State Department first, or not to follow the call up with some hotel expansion bs. Love your input though, thank you.

Shen-yi Liao said...

I don't think it's absurd to legitimately say that this could be how a war starts. So, I'd be less harsh on people who say that. I do agree that media need to stop being China apologists. If a war does start, it's important to note China's responsibility. In this case, how they'd use a minor incident to construct another piece of pretext for aggression.

Anonymous said...

"Improving relations w Taiwan isn't reckless.
Unilateral escalation before you've a policy team or Asia strategy is."

Nick Rowe said...

Good post.

But please explain the photo. Are you drying grain in the sun?

klincheng said...

is there a possibility that I can know you? or visit you? search google for related information about me. thanks

Marc said...

Because of this, all these news agencies with their elite Asian departments located in China are imagining the worst (for them): the CCP has turned off the lights and they are being shown the door. Poor media agencies! Now they'll have to set up shop in Taiwan where the real world is happening.

Marc said...

Also: re Media round-up -- High on Speculations, low on facts. The media gladly contributing to Drumpf's post-truth administration.

Anonymous said...

Those opposed to Trump's accepting Tsai's call aren't giving any agency to Tsai for making the call. Yes, Trump's team helped facilitate the call and he made the choice to accept it, but Tsai, who is neither ignorant nor a loose cannon, also had to evaluate the pros and cons and made the decision to make the call in the best interests of the people she was elected to govern.

Socrates said...

@Anon "The problem with this commentary is that it seriously overestimates Trump."

I don't think Trump really cares tbh, but his advisers (either pro-Taiwan or anti-China) certainly do and probably convinced Trump this is a way to poking China in the eye since Trump campaigned on that.

Anonymous said...

" is not clear what his intentions are or even if he is sane."

TaiwanJunkie said...

this is well played by Trump.

he was briefed on the Taiwan issue and decided he is going to be the boy to cry out the emperor (one china) has no cloth. he is "telling it like it is" and the liberal media uproar ends up making themselves look really bad as Taiwan is the good guys here and instead of supporting the good guys, the liberal media come out of this looking like appeasement happy lackeys kowtowing to China at every turn.


Matt Stone said...

Great to see Taiwan getting plenty of profile all over the place.

Although on balance, all a bit unnerving. Would have been so much better if the phone call had been with a grownup, statesman-like politician (whether Republican or Democrat).

TaiwanJunkie said...

Matt, but remember it took a boy to tell everyone the emperor has no cloth.

Anonymous said...

Only Trump can make a move like that. It is more important that Tsai administration has a strategy to take advantage of the changing status quo. People of the United State want change and Trump will deliver it to them. The up coming US administration is full of hard-line hawk with combat experience. China needs to be sure that they can back their own action with concrete military muscle or US will call it bluff. I hope "Mad Dog" get confirmed as secretary of defense.

China is on verge of decline and US is finally ready to confront it. This kind of opportunity only come once in a generation. I hope President Tsai is bold enough to take it.

Who knows, Trump might be the next Teddy Roosevelt. He is 70 years old and I believe he wants to ensure US is the only super power on his watch.

Abraham Lincoln was a racist and bigot. He overcomes his own prejudice to lead US through Civil War and end slavery. It is too early to judge Trump presidency. We should have more faith in US democratic experiment.

Mike Fagan said...

One thing I haven't seen mentioned is that this is the first time there has been a DPP controlled government in Taiwan (both presidency and legislature) and a Republican controlled government in the U.S. (both presidency and both houses of congress). I would think that makes the sale of a few hundred new F-16s (and a few other things) to Taiwan that much more likely than it was in previous years.

Anonymous said...

Very good piece laying out a similar critique of western media coverage without the "if you don't see things my way you're stupid" tone or framing the discussion in a way that divides readers along ideological lines.

Rich J Matheson said...

Any insight on controlling raids by local monkeys?

Anonymous said...

People who voted for Trump are either 100% behind his bigotry, or they are 100% okay with it; there is no effective difference between the two. Apathy is just as dangerous as active hatred.

Yes, actually, if Hillary had said something so blatantly abusive, had run on a platform of racism, sexism, Islamaphobia, classism, ableism, and basically further disenfranchisement for anyone who isn't a white Christian straight cisgender male - yes, I'd feel exactly the same way about her and anyone who voted for her (and probably be looking for a bridge to jump off, if both of our candidates were so uniformly awful). Because it doesn't matter who does it, it's equally as crappy. It's not about championing a particular issue, it's about not championing the administration who literally wants to institute policies that will kill people.

It hit me so hard because no matter how much I gave dire warnings to the people who handwaved Trump's chances away, I never truly expected him to win. I never, ever, in my heart of hearts, believed that so many people in my country believed in his racist, sexist, ableist, vile rhetoric.

Anonymous said...

God, you anti-Trump people are pathetic snowflakes.

Unknown said...

There are no quotes of Trump that are actually racist. I keep asking people for such quotes and they always come back with stuff against illegal immigrants or Muslims, or "I love the blacks" and "they didn't look like Indians", or his comments on saying a judge is biased. Every human being is biased. None of these statements are racist. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, has said plenty of things that are plainly racist. "Superpredator", "f*cking jew", and participating in a joke in 2016 about "colored people's time". Research Clinton's racism. Bill Clinton is also racist. The media used to like Trump, but when he ran against their Hillary they launched a public smear campaign. You've fallen victim to this campaign. Research the facts about both sides and try to think objectively about them. HRC has also written racist things in wikileaks.