Trump upsets China by speaking directly with Taiwan leader

US President-elect Donald Trump. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP)
US President-elect Donald Trump. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP)

Beijing – In a break with decades-long diplomatic tradition, President-elect Donald Trump spoke directly with the president of Taiwan, a move that drew an irritated response from China and looked set to cast uncertainty over US policy toward Asia.

It is perhaps unprecedented for a US president or president-elect to speak directly with a leader of Taiwan, a self-governing island the US broke diplomatic ties with in 1979.

In first comments apparently meant to downplay the significance of the call, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said on Saturday the contact between Taiwan's president and Trump was "just a small trick by Taiwan" that he believed would not change US policy toward China, according to Hong Kong's Phoenix TV.

"The one-China policy is the cornerstone of the healthy development of China-US relations and we hope this political foundation will not be interfered with or damaged," Wang was quoted as saying.

Washington has pursued a so-called "one China" policy since 1979, when it shifted diplomatic recognition of China from the government in Taiwan to the communist government on the mainland. Under that policy, the US recognises Beijing as representing China but retains unofficial ties with Taiwan.

A statement from Trump's transition team said he spoke on Friday with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, who offered her congratulations.

Tense diplomatic relations

Trump tweeted later that Tsai "CALLED ME". He also groused about the reaction to the call: "Interesting how the US sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call."

The Taiwanese presidential office said Trump and Tsai discussed issues affecting Asia and the future of US relations with Taiwan.

"The [Taiwanese] president is looking forward to strengthening bilateral interactions and contacts as well as setting up closer co-operative relations," the statement said.

Tsai also told Trump that she hoped the US would support Taiwan in its participation in international affairs, the office said, in an apparent reference to China's efforts to isolate Taiwan from global institutions such as the United Nations.

It said the two also discussed "promoting domestic economic development and strengthening national defence" to improve the lives of ordinary people.

Taiwan's presidential office spokesperson Alex Huang said separately that Taiwan's relations with China and "healthy" Taiwan-US relations can proceed in parallel. "There is no conflict [in that]," he told reporters in Taipei.

The White House learned of the conversation after it had taken place, said a senior Obama administration official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitive diplomatic relations involved.

Trump flouting conventions

China's embassy in Washington, its foreign ministry in Beijing and Taiwan Affairs Office did not respond to requests for comment.

Friday's call is the starkest example yet of how Trump has flouted diplomatic conventions since he won the November 8 election. He has apparently undertaken calls with foreign leaders without guidance customarily lent by the State Department, which oversees US diplomacy.

"President-elect Trump is just shooting from the hip, trying to take phone calls of congratulatory messages from leaders around the world without consideration for the implications," said Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.

Glaser said such a call was "completely unprecedented" or at least has never been known publicly. China is likely to be trying to identify whether this signals any intent on the part of Trump to alter long-standing US policy toward Taiwan, Glaser said.

"They will hope that this is a misstep but I think privately, they will definitely seek to educate this incoming president and ensure that he understands the sensitivity of Taiwan," she said.

In particular, China would want to highlight to the incoming administration the risks involved in any form of signal from the United States that it supports strengthening a relationship with Taiwan under a president that Beijing views as pro-independence, Glaser added.

Trump had just last month had a call with Chinese President Xi Jinping during which Trump's office described him as saying he believed the two would have "one of the strongest relationships for both countries".

China concern growing

Despite China's muted response on Saturday, concern about Trump's policy toward China is growing, said Shi Yinhong of Renmin University in Beijing, one of China's best-known international relations scholars.

"In the mind of Chinese leaders, concerns are mounting over US policy toward China" under Trump's administration, Shi said.

Tsai was democratically elected in January and took office in May. The traditional independence-leaning policies of her party have strained relations with Beijing.

The call with Trump could "convince people in Taiwan that the island can establish good relations with the US and encourage [Tsai] to continue to resist pressure from Beijing," Shi said.

Over the decades, the status of Taiwan has been one of the most sensitive issues in US-China relations. China regards Taiwan as part of its territory to be retaken by force, if necessary, if it seeks independence. It would regard any recognition of a Taiwanese leader as a head of state as unacceptable.

Taiwan split from the Chinese mainland amid civil war in 1949. The US policy acknowledges the Chinese view over sovereignty, but considers Taiwan's status as unsettled. The US has legal commitments to help Taiwan maintain the ability to defend itself.

Ned Price, a spokesperson for the White House National Security Council, said Trump's conversation does not signal any change to long-standing US policy on cross-strait issues.

In Beijing, a US business group said it expected the new US administration to respect the status quo.

"American business operating in Asia needs certainty and stability," said James Zimmerman, chairperson of the American Chamber of Commerce in China. "The new administration needs to get up to speed quickly on the historical tensions and complex dynamics of the region."

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