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Bull in a China shop: Trump risks diplomatic blowup in Asia

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.

And even as Asia hands were still scrambling to process the extraordinary breach of diplomatic protocol, conflicting narratives 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.”

And the Taiwanese government suggested some planning went into the call. “Of course both sides agreed ahead of time before making contact,” Alex Huan, a spokesman for Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen, told Reuters.

The readout from the Taiwanese side also suggested Taipei’s motives were more than simple congratulations.

“The president hopes to strengthen two-way interaction and communication and establish closer cooperative relations,” a statement from Tsai’s office said. “The president also told Trump that in the future she hopes that on the question of international relations, the U.S. side can continue to help Taiwan have more chances to participate and make contributions.”

The two leaders spoke about “promoting domestic economic development and strengthening national defense so that citizens can enjoy better lives and security,” it said.

The call is 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. “This has all the earmarks of randomness on the U.S. side,” said a former senior diplomat who served in the George W. Bush administration.

“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.”

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.”

China’s initial response was cautious: Foreign Minister Wang Yi described the phone call as a “petty move” in remarks to journalists, and said the move would not affect “One China” as the bedrock of relations with the United States. Notably, he did not criticize Trump.

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.

Peter Navarro, a policy adviser to Trump who has written extensively about the need to get tough with China, argued in an article for Foreign Policy published the day before the election that Taiwan deserved more military support.

“The Obama administration’s treatment of Taiwan has been equally egregious,” he wrote. “This beacon of democracy in Asia is perhaps the most militarily vulnerable U.S. partner anywhere in the world.”

Republicans have traditionally drawn a harder line than Democrats on Taiwan policy, with some arguing that the U.S. should loudly proclaim it is prepared to defend Taiwan by force, if necessary, against Chinese aggression.

Capitol Hill Republicans 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,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said in a statement.

“Plaudits to President-elect Trump for his historic phone call to Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen,” Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) tweeted. “Strong message to China. New day in Asia.”

Stephen Yates, a China expert who worked in former Vice President Dick Cheney’s office and now runs an international advisory firm, said he backed Trump’s move.

“I do support the idea of taking a call like this, in part because there never has been a pragmatic or strategic reason not to take such calls, before or after inauguration,” Yates said in an email. “China and China experts have imposed extraordinary conditions, more symbolic than substantive, that the U.S. neither practices nor accepts anywhere else.”

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.

Douglas Paal, who served as the unofficial U.S. ambassador in Taiwan under George W. Bush, said Beijing’s initial response likely won’t be the last word.

“China has a wide range of modest to strong options, and Beijing may calculate [that] reserving them for now may have a greater cautionary effect than deploying them right away,” he said. “Taipei is trying to generate positive responses here. That will bother the Chinese more and could trigger a gesture.”

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.”

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 Cheney. “Whatever the truth Beijing much more likely to read this as deliberate provocation/test than a blunder.”

Kellyanne Conway, a senior Trump aide, rejected the notion that the president-elect was not fully up to speed on the diplomatic sensitivities.

“He’s well are of what U.S. policy has been,” she told CNN’s Anderson Cooper Friday. “President-elect Trump is fully briefed and fully knowledgeable about these issues on an ongoing basis regardless of who is on the other end of the phone.”

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 two 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.

And according to Rodrigo Duterte, the bombastic president of the Philippines, Trump told him on their phone call that his violent war on drugs — whose hallmark has been a wave extrajudicial killings — is being conducted “the right way.”

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 White House on Thursday urged the Trump team to avail itself of the State Department’s help and expertise. But the department has not provided full details of how it is supporting Trump and his team as they engage with world leaders.

“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.”

Emily Horne, a spokeswoman with the NSC, on Friday reaffirmed the Obama administration’s eagerness to help Trump. “Every president, regardless of party, has benefited from the expertise and counsel of State Department on matters like these.”

Nahal Toosi and Cristiano Lima contributed to this report.

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