Is this the first taste of a dangerous future? When Donald Trump spoke to the Taiwanese president last week, he touched China in a sensitive spot. Beijing considers Taiwan to be a renegade province; any recognition of Taiwanese independence is considered a hostile act.
Beijing lodged a protest. Mr. Trump responded defensively at first, then cheekily. Statements from his advisers suggested the affront was deliberate.
The incident didn’t affect trade relations or troop movements. But the next American president will enter office under a self-created cloud of Chinese mistrust, in a poisonous atmosphere between the two most powerful countries in the world.
The Asian region between India, Australia and Japan is a peculiar mixture of calm and risk. It isn’t chaotic like the Middle East or parts of Africa, with a landscape of failed states, fleeing refugees and unleashed terrorism. On the contrary: Prosperity and self-confidence are on the rise here in a mood of historical optimism.
The businessman Mr. Trump hasn’t overlooked the opportunities. With a local partner, he is building a 57-story office tower in the Philippine capital Manila; the tycoon has more real-estate projects in India than in any other country. China’s Industry and Trade Bank rents space in Trump Tower in New York. (In 2019, during the term in office of the future president, the lease will be up for renewal: one of Mr. Trump’s many shady, potential conflicts of interest.)
At the same time, Asia is the scene of extreme rivalry. If war threatens anywhere in the world during the coming decades, then it will be here.
This is a prospect that seems not only ghastly but downright unreal, especially to Europeans who have got over the vast, murderous rampages of 1914 to 1945 and are relieved to have survived the threat of annihilation during the Cold War. But in Asia, there are arms races, military maneuvers and patrolling fleets just like in Europe before the First World War.
In recent months, Mr. Trump has done much to feed fears about the future of Asia. His campaign statements about U.S. allies Japan and South Korea were the ultimate geopolitical shockers: If they wished to continue to be defended by the United States (against China and the unpredictable pariah country North Korea), they should pay more. At the same time, he advised both countries to think about acquiring their own nuclear weapons.
It was as if a 1980s American presidential candidate had demanded a security fee for the presence of U.S. soldiers in West Germany – and suggested that perhaps the best protection against the Soviet Union would be a West German atomic bomb.
Immediately after the U.S. election, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe rushed in panic to meet with President-elect Trump in New York. Afterwards, Mr. Abe sought to calm his and the Japanese people’s nerves by voicing his impression of Mr. Trump’s trustworthiness. No concrete results of the talks were revealed.
But the most menacing rivalry, one radiating throughout the region, is between up-and-coming China and an America which seeks to defend its position at the top of the international hierarchy.
Mr. Trump has announced his intention to kill off the planned Trans-Pacific Partnership on his very first day in office. With this agreement, outgoing president Barack Obama had intended to anchor the economic and political position of the U.S. in Asia.
In strategic terms, Mr. Trump’s statement is a defensive gesture, as if he wanted to abandon the field to China. But a policy of detente toward China isn’t what can be expected of him. Unlike with Vladimir Putin, Mr. Trump has up to now not spoken about Chinese leaders in friendly terms. A few of Mr. Trump’s advisers are known to be extreme hardliners with regard to China – and to be hardline supporters of Taiwan.
Mr. Trump himself threatened to impose tariffs on imports from China. The president-elect wants to officially declare the country to be a "currency manipulator" (because of the supposedly undervalued yuan). So the basic attitude isn’t superpower camaraderie (as perhaps with Russia) but raiseing the specter of a "yellow peril." The Taiwan provocation fits in with this.
But it must be recognized that even before Mr. Trump, there was a problem between the U.S. and China. Since around 2010, the relationship between the two countries has grown progressively worse – during the presidency of the liberal, internationalist, calm Barack Obama. It seems that the Chinese-American confrontation is growing like a pernicious process of nature.
The narrative in Washington is that China has become an aggressive, unpredictable power. It asserts sovereignty over groups of islands or stretches of ocean that could justifiably be claimed by neighboring states such as Japan, Vietnam or the Philippines – and it refuses to accept international arbitration. In the parts of the South China Sea under contention, China is building artificial islands that could serve as the basis for military operations.