Eyes On Beijing After Trump’s Call with Taiwan Leader

Among the many eyebrows raised since Donald Trump’s election to the U.S. presidency, several have been elevated by his series of casual conversations with world leaders. Foremost among these until Friday was an effusive exchange with the “terrific” prime minister of Pakistan, a “fantastic country,” whose “breezy tone,” according to The New York Times, “left diplomats in Washington slack-jawed, with some initially assuming it was a parody.”

On Friday, The Financial Times reported that Trump had spoken with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, marking the first publicly known leadership-level contact since 1979. “Although it is not clear if the Trump transition team intended the conversation to signal a broader change in US policy towards Taiwan,” Demetri Sevastopulo and Geoff Dyer reported, “the call is likely to infuriate Beijing”—to say nothing of those among China’s public who find even a pop star with a Republic of China flag enraging. While the Obama administration quickly reaffirmed American adherence to the “One China” policy, a statement from Trump’s transition team included references to “President Tsai”—a sensitive title at the best of times—and close ties “between Taiwan and the ,” implying recognition of Taiwan’s status as a national-level entity, if not an independent nation.

Bloomberg’s Jennifer Jacobs and Nick Wadhams report:

The move threatens to develop into the first major foreign policy incident confronting Trump as he prepares to take office on Jan. 20. With the call, Trump upended a delicate dance that began after the U.S. broke diplomatic ties with Taiwan in 1979, when it officially recognized the government in Beijing. The U.S. has maintained a close relationship with the island – often to China’s anger – in the years since, including with weapons sales.

China will have to respond because President Xi Jinping “does not want to be soft on any potential threat to China’s sovereignty, and Taiwan is and has long been the most sensitive issue in the U.S.-China relationship,” said Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “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.”

[…] “Foreign policy consistency is a means, not an end. It’s not sacred. Thus, it’s Trump’s right to shift policy, alliances, strategy,” [Democrat Connecticut Senator Chris] Murphy tweeted after news of the Taiwan call emerged. “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.” [Source]

From CNN’s Stephen Collinson, Nicole Gaouette and Elise Labott

Michael Green, who served as President George W. Bush’s special assistant for national security affairs, said that while Trump’s call was a huge breach in protocol, the idea of closer ties with Taiwan is not unprecedented. He expects things will normalize, but not before some stormy seas.

“The Chinese will go ballistic,” Green said. “They will have to, and they will warn the US publicly and will find ways to warn them privately, about this.”

[…] Mike Pillsbury, a China adviser to Trump during the campaign who served under Presidents Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Obama, suggested people were over-reacting. He said Trump’s call is like many of the dozens he has made and taken since Election Day with world leaders.

“It shouldn’t be seen as a departure from norms,” Pillsbury said. “We should have warmer ties with Taiwan. And it can be done without alienating Beijing. Indeed over the last decade, Taipei has pursued closer relations with the mainland. We too can do both. The zero sum mentality is an old way of thinking.” [Source]

And from The Diplomat’s Ankit Panda

Somewhat distressingly, the FT notes that it “is not clear if the Trump transition team intended the conversation to signal a broader change in U.S. policy toward Taiwan,” suggesting that this could simply have been borne of a misunderstanding about existing U.S. policy toward China and Taiwan within Trump’s transition team. (Earlier in November, there were reports that Trump was seeking to pursue development projects in Taiwan, imbuing the whole episode with a conflict-of-interest angle as well.)

[…] Despite the FT’s lack of information on the extent to which the call was planned, it is possible that Trump was egged on here by his Asia advisers. For example, Peter Navarro, a Trump adviser on Asia, penned an op-ed in the National Interest advocating for muscular U.S. backing for Taiwan following Tsai’s victory and the surge in Taiwanese nationalism.

In the op-ed Navarrao bemoans Bill Clinton’s decision to renounce U.S. backing for Taiwanese independence in 1998, describing a “throw-Taiwan-under-the-bus” move. U.S. policy, delivered through carefully calculated ambiguity, has been to prevent a change in the status quo across the Taiwan Strait — that means equal opposition to Taiwan unilaterally declaring independence as well as China moving to forcibly “unite” the two. (For China’s People’s Liberation Army, a Taiwan strait contingency remains the primary war-fighting scenario.) [Source]

Some early responses from Twitter: