Trump breaks protocol with Taiwan call

Foreign Policy | Will a Trump administration foster closer ties between the United States and its ninth largest trade partner?
by Angela Lu Fulton
Posted 12/03/16, 11:28 am

TAIPEI, Taiwan—Breaking with U.S.-China protocol, President-elect Donald Trump spoke with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen on the phone Friday, the first time leaders from the United States and Taiwan have spoken since the two countries severed diplomatic ties in 1979.

In response, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the call was “just a small trick” by Taiwan, placing the blame on the island rather than the U.S. president-elect. The move raises questions of what the United States’ relationship with China will look like under a Trump presidency, as well as future U.S. policy toward Taiwan.

China still claims Taiwan as part of its territory—even though Taiwan has a completely separate government, currency, and legal system—and has threatened to retake the island by force if it seeks independence. In order to sustain diplomatic ties with China, the United States and all but 22 countries worldwide have severed official relations with Taiwan. But unofficial ties remain: Taiwan is the United States’ ninth largest trade partner, and in 2015, the Obama administration authorized a $1.83 billion weapons sale to Taiwan.

Officially, the U.S. policy toward cross-straits relations recognizes China’s claim over Taiwan while remaining undecided on Taiwan’s status. In response to the Trump-Tsai call, Wang noted that this “one-China policy is the cornerstone of the healthy development of China-U.S. relations and we hope this political foundation will not be interfered with or damaged.”

Trump’s transition team said Tsai called to offer her congratulations, and “they noted the close economic, political, and security ties … between Taiwan and the United States.” Trump then defended the call with a tweet:

According to the Taiwanese presidential office, the call lasted around 10 minutes as Trump and Tsai discussed how to encourage domestic economic development and strengthen national security. Tsai also said she looked forward to closer cooperation in the future with “bilateral interaction and communication.”

The Obama White House was not informed about the call until after it occurred. White House National Security Council spokesman Ned Price stressed that every president has benefited from the “expertise and counsel” of the State Department on such sensitive issues and noted that Trump’s conversation does not signal change to U.S. policy on cross-strait relations.

“We remain firmly committed to our ‘one China’ policy,” Price said. “Our fundamental interest is in peaceful and stable cross-strait relations.”

To complicate matters, Trump also has potential business interests in Taiwan, as a representative of the Trump Organization recently visited the city of Taoyuan to consider the construction of luxury hotels and resorts.

Reactions to the call have been varied. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., tweeted that Trump’s actions “are major pivots in foreign policy w/out any plan. That’s how wars start.” Former George W. Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer tweeted that he hoped Trump was aware of how drastically he was changing the status quo, as “China will go nuts.” On the other hand, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., commended the phone call, which he believes “reaffirms our commitment to the only democracy on Chinese soil.”

Jerome Keating, an author on Taiwanese issues and a former professor at National Taipei University, believes the call is typical Trump behavior in shocking the public with his unorthodox actions. Yet he is glad that Trump took the advice of Taiwan-friendly advisers and believes it is time for the United States to finally take a stance on Taiwan.

While he’s not confident Trump will follow through with a closer relationship with Taiwan, he hopes other nations that also have trade offices on the island will stop kowtowing to China and start standing up for Taiwan, which has a vibrant democracy and the 22nd largest gross domestic product in the world.

As to breaking protocol, Keating said it “should have been broken long ago.” He said that the U.S. position on Taiwan has been undecided since the end of World War II, and “that’s too long to keep Taiwan in this limbo state. It’s time for the United States to make a commitment to move on.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Angela Lu Fulton

Angela is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine and a part-time editor for WORLD Digital. She is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Angela resides in Taipei, Taiwan. Follow her on Twitter @angela818.


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