Trump Says Good Ties With China More Important Than Taiwan Call

  • Tells Reuters he would consult Xi before talking to Tsai
  • Remarks deal blow to Taiwan’s bid for more U.S. recognition

QuickTake: Taiwan's Tense Relationship With China

President Donald Trump has curtailed Taiwan’s hopes for greater U.S. recognition, saying he would consult with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping before again talking to Taiwan’s leader.

Trump said in an interview with Reuters that having another phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, like their precedent-breaking conversation in December, risked jeopardizing China’s vital cooperation on North Korea. He was responding to Tsai’s remark earlier this week that a second call was possible even though Trump was now in the White House.

“My problem is I have established a very good personal relationship with President Xi,” Trump said, praising the Chinese leader’s support on addressing the North Korean nuclear threat. “So, I wouldn’t want to be causing difficulty right now for him. I think he’s doing an amazing job as a leader and I wouldn’t want to do anything that comes in the way of that. 

“So, I would certainly want to speak to him first,” he said.

The remarks are the latest sign Trump is abandoning his combative China rhetoric in favor of a more cooperative approach as he seeks Beijing’s help in pressuring its neighbor and ally. Trump earlier this month withdrew a campaign pledge to label China a currency manipulator after discussing North Korea with Xi in their first summit in Palm Beach, Florida.

Taiwan’s President Office said in a statement Friday that Tsai had no plans to repeat her Dec. 2 phone conversation with Trump. “We understand that the United States has priorities in dealing with regional matters,” the office said.

‘Back to Normal’

The phone call with Tsai was among Trump’s most provocative moves toward China before taking office. Top U.S. officials have for more than four decades avoided direct contact with their Taiwanese counterparts to maintain relations with China, which has regarded the island a breakaway province since their split in 1949.

The call seemed to indicate that Trump might support Tsai’s pursuit of greater international recognition for the isolated island of 23.5 million. Trump later reaffirmed his support for the so-called One-China policy in a phone call with Xi, paving the way for their meeting in Florida.

“It’s back to normal after taking some interesting initiatives in December,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, who heads Hong Kong Baptist University’s government and international studies department. “Trump is trying to accommodate both sides, more Beijing than Taipei of course, but without fully closing doors on Taiwan.”

Managing Disputes

Cabestan said Trump’s suggestion he might consult with Xi before speaking with Tsai suggested an openness to “co-management” of Taiwan disputes. No U.S. administration had suggested such an approach before. 

Ruan Zongze, vice president of the China Institute of International Studies in Beijing and a former top diplomat in Washington, said Trump’s remarks were proof Xi’s trip to the U.S. had been “very successful.”

Trump’s interview further clouds the prospects for greater U.S. military support for Taiwan, especially as Xi is set to consolidate power at a Communist Party congress later this year. Taiwan, which has for decades relied on American security aid to deter China, plans to include F-35 fighter jets in its first arms request to the Trump administration.

Wang Ting-yu, head of the Taiwanese legislature’s Foreign and National Defense Committee, said that Trump’s suggestion he would speak with Xi before Tsai went against the U.S.’s traditional approach on Taiwan.

“We would like to send a strong reminder to an old friend that the United States’ own rules say that they cannot discuss issues relating to Taiwan with China first,” Wang said. “They must discuss them with Taiwan first. Those are America’s own rules.”

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