Destabilising the Asian-Pacific status quo and unsettling China is not an end in itself. Regional powers are unnerved by erratic and even contradictory signals from the US
Donald Trump’s first letter to Xi Jinping counts, by the US president’s low standards, as a successful stab at basic diplomacy. It tepidly anticipates constructive relations with the Chinese president. Sent almost three weeks after his inauguration, it wishes the Chinese people a prosperous Year of the Rooster, which began almost a fortnight ago. The 20 or so world leaders to whom the new president has spoken have not included the man on the other side of arguably the most important bilateral relationship.
Even if the letter precedes a phone call, China’s anxiety is understandable. Mr Trump’s manifesto described it as “our enemy”. He has questioned the status quo over Taiwan, a red line for Beijing. Peter Navarro, head of his national trade council, is author of the menacingly titled book Death by China. Last year, Steve Bannon, Mr Trump’s chief strategist, said there was “no doubt” the nations would go to war over the territorial dispute in the South China Sea. Secretary of state Rex Tillerson has said China should be blocked from using the artificial islands it has built there. On the other side of the scales – rather lighter at present – are defence secretary James Mattis’s observation that he saw no need for dramatic military moves and the Chinese ambassador’s reportedly “cordial” dialogue with Jared Kushner, presidential son-in-law and adviser.