What the president of the United States says sets the tone and shapes American foreign policy.
As a candidate and even as president-elect, Donald Trump has shown little interest in the protocols, agreements and practices that have marked American foreign policy - and even less interest in spelling out a consistent foreign policy of his own. His impulsive style and his tendency to tweet whatever is on his mind have increased tensions across the globe, and especially with China.
Trump tosses off comments in all directions and uses Twitter to express popular but vague positions on a wide range of policies. He is keeping the world guessing about his future statecraft. I and others have a hard time understanding his true intentions.
Trump accepted a phone call and held a conversation with Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen, a highly unorthodox move that broke with nearly four decades of precedent and called into question America's One China policy. In addition, he has threatened to impose a 45 percent tariff on China, which would disrupt world trade. His unsubstantiated judgments that China is "killing us" on trade and "raping our country" create enormous resentment and uncertainty.
Trump has a transactional view of governing, including foreign policy. In his world, everything is a deal; every relationship is tit-for-tat. He suggests using Taiwan as a bargaining chip to force China to give us a break on trade. He is stoking tensions, flirting with major changes (apparently reconsidering the One China policy) in order to gain trade concessions. He is willing to disrupt the relationship without concern about the consequences.
The question arises: Is this approach to policy the way to handle this critically important relationship?
The U.S. relationship with China, ongoing since 1972 when President Richard Nixon visited China, has included elements of confrontation and cooperation. It is not surprising that a new president might have questions about the relationship and want to put his own stamp on policies.
Trump's willingness to shake up the traditional norms and framework may have some value, and some push-back lets China know that, while we want a stable, mutually beneficial relationship, there are limits to our willingness to cooperate.
After all, China, with its rising footprint in the region, significant power and growing activism, does present challenges for U.S. policy. China has largely avoided intervention in other countries' affairs, however, even as it aggressively pursues its interests and protects its territorial claims.
But our engagement with China over a period of decades has served both sides, creating stability in the region, avoiding war and allowing both countries to grow and prosper. Questioning longstanding policy is fair game; creating chaos, resentments and doubt is not.
Is Trump signaling a real shift? And if so, what it will be? Does he want to abandon the One China policy, a bedrock principle of American foreign policy? And replace it with what? Does he want to provoke a trade war?
The relationship is fragile as well as of paramount importance. The future of the world, in no small measure, depends on the stability of U.S.-China relations. Trump's vague tweets, with few details, sow confusion and escalate risks, such as when China flew what was described as a nuclear-capable bomber across Taiwan and disputed areas of the South China Sea.
All this means that America must be clear, consistent and forceful in maintaining our vital interests in the region. So, from my perspective, Trump's statements are worrisome. He needs to reassure our allies that America will maintain open commerce and trade, continue pragmatic relations, calm tensions and uphold global standards of conduct between nations.
With strong and growing ties with China, America's interest is to make the relationship work. China is our largest trading partner, a nuclear power, and a member of the U.N. Security Council with veto power. U.S. exports to China support over 250,000 jobs.
China also can contribute to the world's stability. Many global problems will be easier to solve with China on board. We have numerous common interests, including climate change, nuclear security and cybersecurity. A stable U.S.-China relationship produces substantial benefits for both countries.
But making the relationship work takes clarity about U.S. objectives. Trump challenges the status quo, but it is not clear what direction he wants to go. The American foreign policy establishment and our allies around the world are anxious about his casual approach.
Bluster and a lack of predictability may have served him well in business. But foreign policy is a very different endeavor, one in which consistency and clarity of purpose are vital. For the sake of a strong and effective American foreign policy, it is time to check his impulsiveness and rein in his reckless comments.