BEIJING — President-elect Donald Trump might have broken with four decades of diplomatic protocol by speaking to Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen on Friday. But the phone call should not have come as a complete surprise.
Some critics portrayed the move as the thoughtless blundering of a foreign policy novice, but other experts say it appears more calculated, planned in advance to signal a new, robust approach to relations with China.
Trump, of course, made standing up to China’s “rape” of the U.S. economy one of his central campaign messages, and since his election win he has signaled his disdain for the conventions that govern political and diplomatic life in Washington.
Several leading members of his transition team are considered hawkish on China and friendly toward Taiwan, including chief of staff Reince Priebus.
Indeed, advisers explicitly warned last month that relations with China were in for a shake-up.
In an article for Foreign Policy titled “Donald Trump’s Peace Through Strength Vision for the Asia-Pacific,” Peter Navarro and Alexander Gray called Taiwan a “beacon of democracy in Asia” and complained that its treatment by the Obama administration was “egregious.”
The article, flagged to China experts as a significant policy blueprint, described Taiwan as “the most militarily vulnerable U.S. partner anywhere in the world” and called for a comprehensive arms deal to help it defend itself against China.
Friday’s phone call does not necessarily mean that will happen, but it does look like the first sign of a recalibration by a future Trump administration, experts say.
It was planned weeks ahead by staffers and Taiwan specialists on both sides, tweeted Julia Famularo, a research affiliate at the Project 2049 Institute, an Arlington-based think tank, adding that she had spoken to someone with direct knowledge.
The goal was to address and amend counterproductive “protocols” that prohibit direct contact between the U.S. president and Taiwan’s leader, she wrote.
“Of course both sides agreed ahead of time before making contact,” Alex Huang, a spokesman for Tsai, told the news agency Reuters.
The call looks like an attempt to test the waters of a new approach before Trump becomes president, experts said: After the inauguration, a similar move would have had more serious diplomatic ramifications.
“This was a planned action by the incoming president-elect and was neither ad hoc or done without deliberation,” said Christopher Balding, an associate professor at the HSBC Business School in Shenzhen.
“This is clearly part of some strategy by the incoming Trump administration about how they plan to treat China and Taiwan,” he added, calling it a “bold and potentially risky move” that clearly shifts policy priorities.
Chinese state media initially reacted with glee to Trump’s election success, reflecting a widely held view that he would not pressure Beijing on human rights, while being open to pragmatic dealmaking.
Those assumptions could be wide of the mark, with Navarro and Gray also recommending more pressure on China over “wild child” North Korea to end its nuclear weapons program, experts say.
The 10-minute phone call is thought to be the first time that a U.S. president or president-elect and a Taiwanese leader have spoken since the late 1970s, and China’s Foreign Ministry lodged a complaint with the United States on Saturday.
The United States formally recognized the government in Beijing as representing China in 1978 and endorses the idea that there is only “one China.” It ended official relations with Taiwan the following year but retains unofficial ties with the island territory, which has become a thriving democracy in recent decades.
While Democrats reacted in horror at the phone call, warning of potentially dangerous destabilization of ties with China, Republicans reacted more positively, not surprising in light of their party’s 2016 campaign platform.
“As a loyal friend of America, Taiwan has merited our strong support, including free trade agreement status, the timely sale of defensive arms including technology to build diesel submarines, and full participation in the World Health Organization, International Civil Aviation Organization, and other multilateral institutions,” the document said.
“China’s behavior has negated the optimistic language of our last platform concerning our future relations with China,” it added, complaining of the brutal crushing of dissent, heightened religious persecution and a “preposterous claim” to the entire South China Sea.
Beijing blocks Taiwan from taking part in almost all international bodies, including the global civil aviation body: Tsai’s office said she had told Trump during the phone call that she hoped the United States “would continue to support more opportunities for Taiwan to participate in international issues.”
She will have some sympathetic ears in the White House.
Priebus is reported to have visited Taiwan with a Republican delegation in 2011 and in October 2015, meeting Tsai before she was elected president. Taiwanese Foreign Minister David Lee called him a friend of Taiwan and said his appointment as Trump’s chief of staff was “good news” for the island, according to local media.
Edwin Feulner, a Trump adviser and founder of the Heritage Foundation think tank, visited Taiwan in October and met Tsai, the China Post reported.
Meanwhile, John Bolton, a Trump ally and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, visited Trump Tower in New York for undisclosed reasons on Friday, according to Politico.
He wrote in a Wall Street Journal article in January that the United States should consider playing the “Taiwan card” against China, to force it to abandon its South China Sea claims.
“If Beijing isn’t willing to back down, America has a diplomatic ladder of escalation that would compel Beijing’s attention,” he wrote, suggesting receiving Taiwanese diplomats officially at the State Department, upgrading the status of U.S. representation in Taipei to an official diplomatic mission, inviting Taiwan’s president to travel in an official capacity to the United States and ultimately possibly restoring full diplomatic recognition.
That approach would strike horror in the minds of foreign policy experts, but the idea that Trump should be congratulated by the democratically elected leader of Taiwan did not meet universal condemnation.
On Twitter, Daniel Blumenthal of the American Enterprise Institute said it should be “applauded by friends of freedom everywhere.”
Famularo tweeted that when Chinese President Xi Jinping met Tsai’s predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou, in 2015, it was called a historic breakthrough, while the Trump-Tsai phone call has been labeled a crisis. “If we argue Obama demonstrated bold thinking by reaching out to Iran & Cuba, why can’t we call a democratic partner?,” she added.
Former U.S. ambassador to China Jon Huntsman told Fox & Friends that even Beijing was not making a big deal about the call.
“Having lived in Taiwan twice and having lived in China once, there’s a little too much hyperventilating about this one,” he said. “But the issue should be this — does Taiwan deserve a little more space? We share values, they have a big economy, we trade, they have a civil society that is large and robust and mature, and we ought to be giving them a little more space.”