With a 10-minute phone call and two tweets, Donald Trump inspired banner headlines and renewed hopes across Taiwan for a stronger partnership with the United States, while also inflaming the complex relationships between the U.S., mainland China, and the self-governing island China regards as a renegade province.
Whether the U.S. president-elect meant to jump into the generational fight between China and Taiwan remains an open question. But by speaking to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, Trump upended four decades of American foreign policy and engaged China directly on the issue of Taiwan, which Beijing has threatened to reclaim by force if necessary. No American president or president-elect has publicly spoken to Taiwan’s leader since the U.S. ended their formal diplomatic relationship in 1979.
Four of his words drew particular attention in Taiwanese newspapers: Trump’s reference, in a follow-up tweet, to Tsai being “the President of Taiwan.”
The phrase is far from benign for China, which regards any reference to a Taiwanese president as an unacceptable acknowledgement of Taiwan’s statehood. Official Chinese pronouncements typically refer to the Taiwanese president as “the Taiwan regional leader.”
Chinese leaders have indicated they dislike Tsai, who was elected in January from a pro-Taiwan independence party and became the island’s first female president. An editorial from the state-run China Daily newspaper admonished Tsai and said the call would “bring nothing substantial but illusionary pride.”
As for Trump, the newspaper said the incident “came as a striking move,” but was not as important as “it seems to be.”
Taiwanese are generally considered to support independence or the status quo, in which China and Taiwan maintain robust social and economic exchanges while the island retains its democracy and de facto independence, over unification with China. Chinese President Xi Jinping, however, has warned that the issue of unification cannot be put off indefinitely.
Yang Chih-kai, a 22-year-old university student at Taiwan’s Tamkang University, said Saturday that the call raised Taiwanese hopes for a stronger relationship with the United States.
“People will think that the U.S. will keep on helping Taiwan protect itself against China’s threat,” Yang said.
Chen Chun-hao, a 43-year-old designer, said Trump might “bring more help” to Taiwan now that both sides had opened a dialogue.
“I believe that this could help Taiwan in its international status and its global situation,” Chen said.
Kao-cheng Wang, dean of Tamkang University’s college of international studies, said he believes Trump might increase American military exports to Taiwan, over Beijing’s vociferous opposition, and try to strengthen economic ties between the two sides.
“Trump will not be restricted by the established foreign policy,” Wang said. “The diplomatic policy may be flexible after he takes office.”
China cut off diplomatic contact with Taiwan in June, one month after Tsai took office, accusing her of refusing to endorse the concept that Taiwan is a part of China. Last month, Xi met with Taiwan’s opposition leader, Nationalist Party Chairwoman Hung Hsiu-chu.
Zhou Qinfen, a retiree from China’s eastern Jiangsu province visiting Beijing on Sunday, echoed several other Chinese interviewed who said they consider Taiwan to be an inextricable part of China.
“If an American president who has only been recently elected starts opposing the unity of China, the people of China will never agree with that,” she said.
The Taiwanese presidential office said Trump and Tsai discussed issues affecting Asia and the future of U.S. relations with Taiwan. Tsai also told Trump that she hoped the U.S. would support Taiwan in its participation in international affairs, the office said, in an apparent reference to China’s efforts to isolate Taiwan from global institutions such as the United Nations.
Taiwan’s presidential office spokesman Alex Huang said separately that Taiwan’s relations with China and “healthy” Taiwan-U.S. relations can proceed in parallel. “There is no conflict (in that),” he told reporters in Taipei on Saturday.
After Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi blamed Taiwanese leaders Saturday for playing a “small trick,” China said it would issue a diplomatic complaint with Washington.
That is likely only the beginning of China’s response, said Douglas Paal, a former director of the American Institute in Taiwan, which unofficially represents U.S. interests in Taipei.
Wang’s comment “is intended to give time for Trump to back away from or desist from moves to elevate treatment of Taiwan,” said Paal, now vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “China will watch carefully to see what he does. But Taiwan will be seen as in need of some form of punishment.”
One potential move for China is to apply new pressure to the 22 states that have formal diplomatic ties with Taipei, Paal said. Most of the world and the United Nations already recognize Beijing as the official government of China.
What happens next will hinge on whether the call is seen as a “complicated accident” or an intentional signal of new policy, Paal said.
“Beijing will watch closely to see which it is,” he said. “But until someone from Trump Tower explains further, it is unknowable.”
Republished with permission of the Associated Press.