Enemy of my enemy: Trump's comments on Russia may be intended for Chinese ears

Of the many unconventional moves and remarks President-Elect Donald Trump already has made before taking office, one that rattles both Republicans and Democrats is his admiration for Vladimir Putin and his seeming determination to improve U.S.-Russian ties.

But what if this most unusual leader is following his businessman’s instincts, and taking a page from the diplomatic playbook of two brilliant world power players: Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger.

While no one – even Trump – thinks Putin is our BFF, the new president has been, even before he announced his candidacy, critical of China’s double standard when it comes to trade with the U.S. and manipulation of its own currency. Trump’s remarks about wanting to strengthen cooperation with Putin to jointly combat Islamic terrorism make a kind of rough-hewn sense. And holding out the bait of weakening economic and diplomatic sanctions imposed by the current Obama Administration are exactly the signals of respect that Putin desperately wants.

While the echo chamber of most cable news channels and newspaper editorial pages has reacted with shock and horror, Trump’s denunciation of China versus his pragmatic stance on Russia recalls the historic and visionary Triangular Diplomacy employed by Nixon and Kissinger to rebalance relations among China, the Soviet Union and the U.S.

Early in Nixon’s first term, he and Kissinger, his then-national security adviser, decided to capitalize (no pun intended) on the fissure between the world’s two biggest communist powers. China, for its part, had concluded by 1969 that it could not prevail against the Soviet Union militarily and sent various signals that it was interested in warming the diplomatic thaw between Beijing and Washington.

Seeing the potential benefits for the U.S., and to back the Soviets into a corner, Nixon loosened trade restrictions, and began negotiating quietly about restoring diplomatic ties. In 1971, China allowed the U.S. to send a table tennis team to compete in China, the photo-op famously known as “ping pong diplomacy.” Kissinger made a secret trip to China to meet with its top leaders, to announce it would support China’s membership in the United Nations. A year later, Nixon flew to Peking, crowning one of the 20th Century’s most significant diplomatic courtships. Even the mainstream American press, then as now, no friends of Republican presidents, conceded Nixon and Kissinger had executed a brilliant move that strengthened the U.S. and hobbled the Soviets, who could not hope to resume the close relations they once had with communist China.

Whether Trump is planning a similar reshuffle in relations with China and Russia is unclear. But his harsh rhetoric about China’s trade policies and expansion of its influence in Southern Asia, versus his kinder, gentler approach to Russia has China on its guard. The state-run China Daily newspaper last week warned the incoming administration not to push Beijing too far, or face consequences.

That is something the Chinese never had to tell Barack Obama. They didn’t and don’t fear him. They might not fear Trump either, but they are wary. And that’s a good thing.