China Treads Carefully as Trump’s Taiwan Call Jolts Ties

  • President-elect breaks protocol to speak with island’s leader
  • Beijing urges U.S. to respect vow to treat two as same country

China complained to the U.S. after President-elect Donald Trump flouted almost four decades of diplomatic protocol by directly speaking with the leader of Taiwan, which Beijing considers a rogue province. 

The “solemn representation” on Saturday urged U.S. authorities to adhere to the so-called one-China principle and “prudently” handle issues related to the self-governed island. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that Trump’s Friday telephone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen was a “little trick pulled off by Taiwan,” saying “we don’t want to see this political foundation disturbed and damaged.”

The measured response suggested China’s desire to keep the incident from escalating into a full-blown crisis before Trump entered the White House or even appointed a full foreign policy team. Statements from Trump’s transition team and his subsequent comments on Twitter left unclear whether the call presaged a shift in longstanding U.S. policy against recognizing Taiwan’s sovereignty or allowing direct communication between top leaders.

“This could be potentially explosive, but now is not the right time for Beijing to make the formal call on Trump’s Taiwan policy because he’s yet to take office,” said Wang Fan, director of China Foreign Affairs University’s Institute of International Relations. “He’s still learning and doing his homework. China’s measured response would give him some time to do a crash course on the history of Sino-U.S. relations.”

Read about the tightrope Taiwan walks with China -- QuickTake

The U.S. broke diplomatic ties with Taiwan and officially recognized the Communist government in Beijing in 1979. Still, it has maintained a close relationship with the democratically run island -- often to China’s anger -- and is legally required to provide military support and protection. President Barack Obama announced a $1.8 billion arms sale to Taiwan in 2015, drawing protests from Beijing.

Trump’s transition team said in a statement that Taiwan’s president congratulated the Republican on his victory and the two “noted the close economic, political and security ties” between the two sides. The call lasted more than 10 minutes, Taiwan’s presidential office said in an e-mailed statement.

Tweeted Response

“The President of Taiwan CALLED ME today to wish me congratulations on winning the Presidency. Thank you!,” Trump later said on Twitter. “Interesting how the U.S. sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call.”

The call was planned in advance with knowledge of Trump’s transition team and was the right thing to do, said Stephen Yates, a former U.S. national security official who served under President George W. Bush.

Yates denied multiple media reports that he arranged the call, while adding that it doesn’t make sense for the U.S. to be “stuck” in a pattern of acquiescing to China over Taiwan.

“If people are going to have these sort of hyperbolic -- and in my view ‘Chicken Little’ reactions -- to a phone call, imagine what it’s going to be like when we have real substantive differences,” Yates said in a telephone interview Saturday.

Engaging directly with Taiwan might lead instead to “some sense of rebalancing” of U.S. relations with Taiwan and China, Yates said. “The Chinese have imposed thought control, verbal control, behavior control on the United States,” he said.

Sensitive Issue

Taiwan is considered the most sensitive issue between the U.S. and China, who were each other’s biggest trading partners last year, exchanging goods and services worth $627 billion. The island of 23.5 million people has been ruled separately since 1949, when Chiang Kai-shek moved the Republic of China government there at end of the Chinese Civil War.

While ties between Beijing and Taipei have improved over the decades, China continues to have some 1,200 missiles aimed across the Taiwan Strait and has asserted its right to invade as a way to prevent any formal split. Tensions have increased since Tsai’s landslide election win in January. Her party officially supports independence and she has personally refused calls to reaffirm the one-China principle.

Taiwanese presidential office spokesman Alex Huang said after the call that good Taiwanese-U.S. relations were as important as cross-strait ties. “It’s in line with national interests, and critical to regional peace,” Huang said. “Those are goals of the government and there’s no conflict among the goals.”

Vacant Posts

Wang, China’s foreign minister, said Saturday that the call wouldn’t affect consensus of the international community that recognized the government in Beijing, according to the official Xinhua News Agency. “I don’t think it will change the one-China policy of the U.S. government either,” he said on the sidelines of a foreign policy seminar.

Trump has yet to name a secretary of state. The White House this week encouraged Trump’s team to reach out to experienced U.S. State Department officials as the president-elect continues to field calls from world leaders.

An Obama administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the White House wasn’t notified about the call in advance. National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said, “There is no change to our longstanding policy on cross-Strait issues,” adding that the U.S. remained “firmly committed to our ‘one China’ policy.”

Kissinger Meeting

Before Trump’s phone call Friday, Chinese President Xi Jinping was meeting in Beijing with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, 93, a key architect of restored ties between the two sides during the administration of President Richard Nixon, to discuss the U.S. situation. Xi told Trump in a telephone call Nov. 14 that cooperation was the only correct choice for relations between the two powers.

“The Chinese will not take this as an indication of policy, but it will make them concerned and they will seek to provide some education to the incoming team,” said Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Xi has vowed a hard line against what the Communist Party sees as separatist behavior, whether in Taiwan, Hong Kong or the country’s frontier regions of Tibet and Xinjiang.

Ni Shixiong, a professor at Fudan University’s Center for American Studies in Shanghai, said he believed that Taiwan may reemerge as a source of tension between the two sides.

“The Taiwan issue had been marginalized and under relatively good control,” Ni said. “But my hunch now is Taiwan may become a flash point.”

Trump’s phone call may also raise fresh conflict of interest questions about the president-elect, a billionaire property developer. A Taiwanese newspaper reported on Nov. 16 that Trump was considering building luxury hotels and resorts in Taoyuan City, a major industrial center with an airport that serves Taipei, citing the city’s mayor. Trump’s organization denied reports of planned expansion in Taiwan, ABC News reported Saturday on Twitter.

Trump on Nov. 30 said he plans to leave his business “in total” to focus on the White House and will discuss the matter at a news conference with his children on Dec. 15.

— With assistance by Keith Zhai, Jun Luo, Debra Mao, Chris Strohm, and John McCluskey

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