In a stunning move, Donald Trump broke with decades of diplomatic tradition on Friday to become the first U.S. president or president-elect to speak directly with a leader of Taiwan since diplomatic ties were cut in 1979.
Trump’s 10-minute phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen threw into doubt the U.S. tack toward Asia, including the “one-China” policy, which recognized communist Beijing as the sole government of China in 1979.
Hours after the call, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi blamed Taipei for the conversation, calling it “a trick of the Taiwanese side,” state media reported.
“The one-China principle is the cornerstone of Sino-U.S. relations, and we don’t want to see the political principle disrupted or damaged,” Wang said.
Taiwan split from the Chinese mainland amid civil war in 1949. Beijing views the island as a recalcitrant province to be reunited, by force if necessary.
In a statement, the Trump transition team confirmed the president-elect had spoken with Tsai, who offered her congratulations.
“During the discussion, they noted the close economic, political, and security ties exists between Taiwan and the United States. President-elect Trump also congratulated President Tsai on becoming President of Taiwan earlier this year.”
Trump said in a tweet that the Taiwanese side had initiated the call, but a report by the Taipei Times ahead of the conversation said it had been arranged by his Taiwan-friendly campaign staff.
“The President of Taiwan CALLED ME today to wish me congratulations on winning the Presidency. Thank you!” he wrote in a tweet.
About an hour later, Trump again tweeted, this time referencing Washington’s congressionally mandated arms deals with Taipei. “Interesting how the U.S. sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call,” he wrote.
Washington’s ties with the island are governed by 1979’s Taiwan Relations Act, which states that it is the policy of the U.S. “to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character.”
Trump campaign spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway told CNN that the president-elect is “well aware” of what U.S. policy has been on Taiwan, but it remained unclear if the call signaled a policy shift.
Any U.S. move that implied backing for independence would not be taken lightly by China, experts said.
While Washington cut formal ties with the island in 1979, it has maintained friendly, nonofficial relations with Taipei — including weapons sales — as part of its policy of deliberate ambiguity so as to maintain stability in cross-strait relations and deter a potential invasion from the mainland.
Taiwan’s presidential office issued a statement on its website early Saturday saying that Trump and Tsai had “exchanged views on the situation in 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.
“The president also told U.S. President-elect Trump that she hopes the U.S. will continue to support Taiwan’s efforts in having more opportunities to participate in and contribute to international affairs in the future,” Tsai’s office said.
It said the two also “shared ideas and concepts” on “promoting domestic economic development and strengthening national defense” to improve the lives of ordinary people.
Tsai, of the independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party, was elected in January and took office in May. The traditional policies of her party have strained relations with China.
“This sets a very negative tone for Sino-U.S. ties because either Trump knows nothing about the complexity and nuance of America’s one-China policy or, worst still, he knows the sensitivity of this issue and nevertheless decides to go ahead with the call,” said Minxin Pei, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. “This is perhaps the most important aspect of this whole incident.”
But Dan Blumenthal, director of Asia studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said that Trump’s conversation with Tsai was a moral and strategic choice that could help eliminate “unwelcome surprises.”
“Trump’s talk with Tsai was right on moral and strategic grounds,” Blumenthal said.
“On strategic grounds, it is important to have as many direct channels to Taiwan as we can,” he said. “Beijing and Taipei both benefit from enhanced communications as we seek stability across the strait. Japan benefits as well. One of the problems we have had in the past is a lack of communications with Taiwan at the highest levels. That only leads to unwelcome surprises.”
The call was one of several Trump has made with world leaders since his election victory. Many reportedly were made without U.S. government guidance.
Until Thursday, State Department officials had said that Trump had not asked for official briefings on current policy from U.S. diplomats before making the calls.
On Friday, State Department spokesman John Kirby said that the outgoing U.S. administration has now helped with “some foreign communications that the transition team has gone forward with.” He referred questions to Trump’s office for details and would not say whether the president-elect himself had requested any background briefings before making or taking any calls.
China was the target of much of Trump’s fiery rhetoric during his election campaign, and Friday’s revelation was likely to fuel fears that he is flouting diplomatic convention and making up foreign policy as he goes.
“The call appears to be unprecedented, but everything he does is unprecedented,” said Brad Glosserman, executive director of the Pacific Forum CSIS think tank. “Reportedly he has no official U.S. government guidance, briefings on these calls, so you end up with some amazing things being said.”
Key advisers to the president-elect have indicated that Trump is likely to take a more muscular approach toward China than his predecessor, Democratic President Barack Obama, who has championed an economic and military “pivot” to Asia.
Trump’s advisers have said that he plans to bolster the U.S. military in part in response to China’s growing assertiveness in Asia. Details of his plans remain scant.
Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Trump is entitled to change policy but his approach is potentially dangerous.
“Foreign policy consistency is a means, not an end,” Murphy said on Twitter. “It’s not sacred. Thus, it’s Trump’s right to shift policy, alliances, strategy.”
However, he added: “What has happened in the last 48 hours is not a shift. These are major pivots in foreign policy w/out any plan. That’s how wars start.”
Glosserman echoed this sentiment, saying that “to think that he has some geostrategic plan gives him too much credit.”
“I am pretty sure he doesn’t know what the one-China principle means, how it is different from a one-China policy, which is U.S. policy, and why,” Glosserman added.