Donald Trump startled foreign policy watchers Friday by speaking with the president of Taiwan, a break with more than 35 years of U.S. policy that is likely to infuriate China.
The United States and Taiwan have a strong but unofficial relationship, and Trump’s phone call, confirmed by his transition team Friday afternoon, raises questions about whether the president-elect intended to signal a policy shift that could antagonize Beijing even before he takes office.
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And even as Asia hands were still scrambling to process the extraordinary breach of diplomatic protocol, conflicting reports emerged over just who contacted whom.
“The President of Taiwan CALLED ME today to wish me congratulations on winning the Presidency,” Trump tweeted on Friday evening. “Interesting how the U.S. sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call.”
But according to a report in the Taipei Times, the call was “arranged by his Taiwan-friendly campaign staff after his aides briefed him on issues regarding Taiwan and the situation in the Taiwan Strait.”
The call is also the latest of several post-election conversations between Trump and foreign leaders that have raised alarms about whether the president-elect understands or cares about diplomatic protocol. One former senior Obama White House official who handled foreign policy said on Friday that world leaders may be wondering whether to take Trump’s words literally.
“President-elect Trump spoke with President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan, who offered her congratulations,” Trump’s transition team said in its statement, unceremoniously lumped among readouts from his calls with three other world leaders. “During the discussion, they noted the close economic, political, and security ties exists between Taiwan and the United States.”
Neither the State Department, nor the Chinese Embassy in Washington had any immediate comment on the call.
Trump’s specific language does not mark a break with U.S. policy — but the conversation itself does. China regards Taiwan — which broke away from Communist mainland China in 1949 — as an outlaw province. The U.S. severed diplomatic relations with Taipei in 1979 after President Jimmy Carter adopted a “One China” policy that recognized Beijing as China’s sole government.
No U.S. president or president-elect is known to have spoken to a Taiwanese leader since. But the U.S. does maintain friendly relations with Taiwan and — as Trump noted — has sold the island billions of dollars in military hardware, much to Beijing’s ire.
Trump’s Friday-afternoon surprise is already complicating Asia diplomacy for the White House, which found it necessary to re-affirm that the ‘One China’ policy remains in effect.
“There is no change to our longstanding policy on cross-Strait issues,” National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said in a statement. “We remain firmly committed to our ‘one China’ policy based on the three Joint Communiques and the Taiwan Relations Act,” he said, referring to the key documents that have guided America’s awkward but functional Taiwan policy for decades. “Our fundamental interest is in peaceful and stable cross-Strait relations.”
Trump has said little about Taiwan, but has surrounded himself with advocates of a tilt away from Beijing, including former U.N. ambassador John Bolton, who visited Trump Tower on Friday for undisclosed reasons. In January, Bolton, who has been considered for top posts in a Trump administration, argued for “playing the Taiwan card” to pressure mainland China to back off its increasingly aggressive moves in the Pacific region.
“The new U.S. administration could start with receiving Taiwanese diplomats officially at the State Department; upgrading the status of U.S. representation in Taipei from a private “institute” to an official diplomatic mission; inviting Taiwan’s president to travel officially to America; allowing the most senior U.S. officials to visit Taiwan to transact government business; and ultimately restoring full diplomatic recognition,” Bolton wrote in a chest-beating op-ed for the Wall Street Journal.
In its story, the Taipei Times reported that Stephen Yates, a national security aide to former Vice President Dick Cheney, is currently in Taiwan. It said that Yates, now chairman of the Idaho Republican Party, is close to Trump’s incoming White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus, and is likely to win an appointment in a Trump administration. Yates has called for “better U.S. treatment of Taiwan.”
“It’s great to have a leader willing to ignore those who say he cannot take a simple call from another democratically elected leader,” Yates tweeted Friday. But he also said he was in Idaho, not Taiwan, though he said he was “preparing to visit Asia.”
Republicans have traditionally drawn a harder line than Democrats on Taiwan policy, with some arguing that the U.S. should loudly proclaim that it is prepared to defend Taiwan by force, if necessary, against Chinese aggression.
At least one prominent Republican rose to Trump’s defense Friday.
“I commend President-elect Trump for his conversation with President Tsai Ing-wen, which reaffirms our commitment to the only democracy on Chinese soil,” Republican Sen. Tom Cotton, who had been floated as a potential defense secretary before the job was offered to retired general James Mattis, said in a statement.
Given China’s sensitivity about the status of Taiwan, Trump’s call could provoke an early diplomatic crisis with Beijing. Trump has already publicly pledged to get tough on China, regularly railing against the country’s trade policies on the campaign trail.
Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy on Friday immediately warned of dire consequences from Trump’s actions.
“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,” Murphy said on Twitter. “And if they aren’t pivots – just radical temporary deviations – allies will walk if they have no clue what we stand for. Just as bad.”
But Bill Bishop, a longtime China hand, questioned the instant consensus that Chinese leader Xi Jinping would respond with blind fury — rather than calculated opportunism. “Xi may be angry over the Trump-Tsai call but he may also be happy with the opportunity it presents,” he tweeted. “Beijing loves being given pretexts.”
“Strategy involves thinking more than one move ahead. No evidence of that here,” wrote Aaron Friedberg, an Asia expert who worked in the Bush White House under Vice President Dick Cheney. “Whatever the truth Beijing much more likely to read this as deliberate provocation/test than a blunder.”
Xi met Friday with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who laid the diplomatic groundwork for the ‘One China’ policy and has been shuttling to Beijing for years. Kissinger met with Trump to weeks ago, and Xi acknowledged he was hoping to better understand his new American counterpart.
“The presidential election has taken place in the United States and we are now in the key moment,” Xi told reporters in Beijing. “We, on the Chinese side, are watching the situation very closely.”
Trump seems to have a running interest in Taiwan. In October 2011, he tweeted about his displeasure with President Barack Obama for delaying the sale of dozens of F-16 jets to Taipei. “Wrong message to send to China,” he wrote.
He may also have business interests there. The Shanghaiist reported on Nov. 18 that Trump is considering building luxury resorts in Taiwan, with a Trump Organization representative visiting the city of Taoyuan in September.
The call comes after other Trump encounters with foreign leaders — which are not run through the State Department and its experts on diplomatic protocol — have drawn a mixture of criticism and puzzlement.
Trump’s Wednesday call with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, for instance, raised eyebrows after a readout from Pakistan’s government suggested that Trump — who called Pakistan “a fantastic country, a fantastic place of fantastic people” — was wildly unprepared for the call, particularly when he volunteered to “play any role” to help solve the nation’s problems and offered to visit.
Trump has held dozens of calls with world leaders since his surprise election last month, and bristled at a New York Times report that characterized his approach to the calls as haphazard. “I have received and taken calls from many foreign leaders despite what the failing @nytimes said. Russia, U.K., China, Saudi Arabia, Japan,” Trump tweeted on Nov. 16, going on to write, “Australia, New Zealand, and more. I am always available to them. @nytimes is just upset that they looked like fools in their coverage of me.”
The State Department has not provided full details of how it is supporting Trump and his team as they engage with world leaders, but says it’s ready to assist at any time.
“It’s really more appropriate to talk to the transition team about their preparations for these communications,” State spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Friday. “Our job is to offer support whether that’s in terms of facilitation, translation, or context, which we have done and will continue to do. But the degree to which it’s utilized is really for the transition team to decide, and it’s really more appropriate for them to speak to.”
Emily Horne, a spokeswoman with the NSC, on Friday reaffirmed the Obama administration’s eagerness to help Trump. “As President Obama has said, we are committed to ensuring the smoothest possible transition for the incoming administration,” she said. “Every president, regardless of party, has benefited from the expertise and counsel of State Department on matters like these.”
Nahal Toosi contributed to this report.