President-elect Donald Trump kicked off a fresh controversy Friday when he spoke to President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan in a major departure from America’s decades-old China policy that could earn him a rebuke from Beijing, or a protest at the least.
There have been no known contacts between a US president, or a president-elect, and a leader of Taiwan, which China counts as a province, since the US broke diplomatic relations with the island nation in 1978, in pursuit of one-China policy.
In a readout of the call with President Tsai, Trump transition team said the two leaders “noted the close economic, political, and security ties exists between Taiwan and the United States”. Trump also congratulated Tsai on her election earlier in the year.
The President of Taiwan CALLED ME today to wish me congratulations on winning the Presidency. Thank you!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 3, 2016
As criticism bubbled up on news networks and social media, Trump pushed back, defending himself in a tweet: “Interesting how the US sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call.”
Interesting how the U.S. sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 3, 2016
He is right. The US continue to do big defense deals with Taiwan despite having no diplomatic relations with it — the Obama administration approved a $1.83 billion defense deal in 2015, despite protests from Beijing.
Trump has been criticized for showing complete disregard for stated US policies and protocol in his conversations with world leaders calling to congratulate him on his victory, and, as with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, he has contradicted himself.
US media reported that the call to Tsai was possibly the first known contact between leaders of the two countries after President Jimmy Carter shut down US embassy in Taipei and broke diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 1978.
The United States adopted a one-China policy after the historic meeting between President Richard Nixon and China’s Mao Zedong in 1972. But a break in diplomatic ties has not stopped the US from selling arms to Taiwan, as Trump pointed out.
But was this a deliberate move?
Experts and observers cautioned against dismissing Trump’s call with Tsai as a mistake or a blunder. Many of his close advisers have long believed that the US has been pandering to China by not establishing contacts with Taiwan.
The president-elect’s phone calls with foreign leaders — Prime Minister Narendra Modi was among the first, speaking to him on November 9 — have come under increased scrutiny as he has conducted them without the advise of the state department.
Asked about a call with the Philippines president also on Friday, state department spokesman John Kirby told reporters, “What I can tell you is we stand by to assist and facilitate and support communication that the transition team is having with foreign leaders. I don’t have any specific – I don’t know of any specific support that was provided for that call.”
Trump’s calls, a routine matter of protocol for incoming presidents, began to get attention when it was reported he spoke with Teresa May, prime minister of the United Kingdom, a close US ally, much after many other world leaders.
His call with Sharif made more headlines around the world than any of the others. He was effusive in his praise of the Pakistanis. According to a transcript released by Islamabad, he called Sharif a “terrific guy”, and Pakistan an “amazing” country.
It was the same country that he had been brutal abut in the past. “Get it straight: Pakistan is not our friend,” he said in 2012, and later said he was worried by their nuclear arsenal and would like to involve India in doing something about them.