NEW YORK – In a break with decadeslong 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 U.S. policy toward Asia.
It is perhaps unprecedented for a U.S. president or president-elect to speak directly with a leader of Taiwan, a self-governing island the U.S. broke diplomatic ties with in 1979.
In first comments apparently meant to downplay the significance of the call, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Saturday that the contact between Taiwan’s president and Trump was “just a small trick by Taiwan” that he believed would not change U.S. policy toward China, according to Hong Kong’s Phoenix TV.
“The one-China policy is the cornerstone of the healthy development of China-U.S. 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 U.S. recognizes Beijing as representing China but retains unofficial ties with Taiwan.
A statement from Trump’s transition team said he spoke Friday with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, who offered her congratulations on his election win.
Trump tweeted later that Tsai “CALLED ME.” He also groused about the reaction to the call: “Interesting how the U.S. 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 U.S. relations with Taiwan.
“The (Taiwanese) president is looking forward to strengthening bilateral interactions and contacts as well as setting up closer cooperative relations,” the statement said.
Tsai also told Trump that she hoped the U.S. 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 defense” to improve the lives of ordinary people.
Taiwan’s presidential office spokesman Alex Huang said separately that Taiwan’s relations with China and “healthy” Taiwan-U.S. 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.
China’s embassy in Washington and its foreign ministry and Taiwan Affairs Office in Beijing 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 Nov. 8 election. He has apparently undertaken calls with foreign leaders without guidance customarily lent by the State Department, which oversees U.S. 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 Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
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 U.S. 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.
Last month, Trump 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.”
Despite China’s muted response 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 about U.S. policy toward China” under Trump’s administration, Shi said.
Tsai was 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 U.S. 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 U.S.-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 U.S. policy acknowledges the Chinese view over sovereignty, but considers Taiwan’s status as unsettled. The U.S. has legal commitments to help Taiwan maintain the ability to defend itself.
Taiwan’s official Central News Agency said Edwin Feulner, former president of the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based conservative think tank, was a “crucial figure” in setting up communication channels between the sides, leading to the call. Feulner could not immediately be reached to comment on the report, which cited anonymous sources.
Feulner had met with Tsai in October when he led a delegation from the think tank on a trip to Taiwan, according to a release at the time from Taiwan’s presidential office. That release says Tsai called Feulner a “longtime friend to Taiwan” and conveyed her gratitude to his foundation for its support.
Ned Price, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said Trump’s conversation does not signal any change to long-standing U.S. policy on cross-strait issues.
In Beijing, a U.S. business group said it expected the new U.S. administration to respect the status quo.
“American business operating in Asia needs certainty and stability,” said James Zimmerman, chairman 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.”