Tsai Ing-wen, President of the Republic of China (Photojournalists Association/Pool via Bloomberg)

Trump Speaks to Taiwan Leader in Move Likely to Offend China

(Bloomberg) -- President-elect Donald Trump spoke Friday by phone with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-Wen in an unprecedented move that’s sure to provoke China, which regards the country as a renegade province.

Trump’s transition team sent a statement saying that Taiwan’s president congratulated Trump on his victory and the two “noted the close economic, political and security ties” between the nations. The statement didn’t indicate if the call presaged a shift in longstanding U.S. policy against recognizing Taiwan’s sovereignty or allowing direct communication between top leaders. The call lasted more than 10 minutes, Taiwan’s presidential office said in an e-mailed statement.

“The President of Taiwan CALLED ME today to wish me congratulations on winning the Presidency. Thank you!,” Trump later said on Twitter. “Interesting how the U.S. sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call.”

The move threatens to develop into the first major foreign policy incident confronting Trump as he prepares to take office on Jan. 20. The call may have 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.”

Glaser said there had never been a publicly announced phone call between a Taiwanese leader and a U.S. president or president-elect in the almost four decades since ties were broken.

This is “unprecedented and is good news” for Taiwan, said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, director of government and international studies at Hong Kong Baptist University, who has written a number of books on Taiwan. It’s “typical Trump. Unexpected, direct, and fast.”

“The U.S. support for Taiwan’s democracy and security is here to stay. Whether it will have an impact on China’s strategy of isolation of Ms Tsai or not remains to be seen,” Cabestan said. “My hunch is that it won’t very much.”

World Leaders

The Taiwan contact was made public as part of a statement disclosing that Trump held phone calls on Friday with world leaders including Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby declined to comment. The Chinese Embassy in Washington also declined to comment.

An Obama administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the White House wasn’t notified about the call in advance.

White House spokesman Ned Price said, “There is no change to our longstanding policy on cross-Strait issues,” adding that the U.S. remains “firmly committed to our ‘one China’ policy.”

‘Major Pivots’

Trump’s most recent conversations with world leaders prompted alarm from Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat.

“Foreign policy consistency is a means, not an end. It’s not sacred. Thus, it’s Trump’s right to shift policy, alliances, strategy,” 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.”

Ties between China and Taiwan have generally improved, with the launch of daily flights and increased business ties, but soured after the election of Tsai as president earlier this year. Tsai said at her inauguration in May that she will seek peaceful ties with China while resisting pressure from the mainland to acknowledge the idea that they are part of a single nation.

Trump has yet to name a secretary of state. The White House this week encouraged Trump’s team to reach out to experienced State Department officials as the president-elect continues to field calls from world leaders.

The U.S. has provided billions of dollars in military and other aid to Taiwan in the years since breaking off formal relations, including last year, when the Obama administration announced a $1.8 billion arms sale to Taiwan. That prompted an angry response from Chinese leaders.

In his Twitter feed, Trump has periodically criticized the Obama administration for delaying arms sales to Taiwan.

“Why is @BarackObama delaying the sale of F-16 aircraft to Taiwan? Wrong message to send to China. #TimeToGetTough,” Trump tweeted in 2011.