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 Trump intended to signal a policy shift that could antagonize Beijing even before he takes office.
The call is also the latest of several post-election conversations between Trump and foreign leaders that have raised concerns 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 a statement. “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 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 then. But the U.S. does maintain friendly relations with Taiwan, and has sold the island billions of dollars in military hardware, much to Beijing’s ire.
In a statement to POLITICO, National Security Council spokesman Ned Price reaffirmed the Obama administration’s existing Taiwan policy. “There is no change to our longstanding policy on cross-Strait issues,” Price said. “We remain firmly committed to our ‘one China’ policy based on the three Joint Communiques and the Taiwan Relations Act. Our fundamental interest is in peaceful and stable cross-Strait relations.”
The Taipei Times reported on Friday that 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 paper added 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 likely to win an appointment in a Trump administration. Yates has called for “better U.S. treatment of Taiwan.”
Republicans have traditionally drawn a harder line than Democrats on Taiwan policy, with some arguing that the U.S. should be prepared to defend Taiwan by force, if necessary, against Chinese aggression.
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 on the campaign trail.
Trump seems to have a running interest in the country. In October 2011 Trump tweeted about his displeasure with President Barack Obama for delaying the sale of dozens of F-16 jets to Taiwan. “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 Nawz 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 unprepared for the call, particularly when he volunteered to “play any role” to help solve the nation’s problems.
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, told POLITICO 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 benefitted from the expertise and counsel of State Department on matters like these.”
Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy on Friday immediately warned of dire consequences from ill-informed foreign policy moves by Trump.
“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.”
Nahal Toosi contributed to this report.
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