SHANGHAI — President Trump said Thursday that he would not speak directly with Taiwan’s president without first checking with Chinese President Xi Jinping, a striking reversal sure to rile Taipei and please Beijing.
Trump’s comments, made in an interview with Reuters, came a day after Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, told the same news agency that she would be open to a second call with Trump, depending on “the needs of the situation and the U.S. government’s consideration of regional affairs.”
In his interview, however, Trump spoke warmly about the Chinese president and acknowledged the need not to make things “difficult” for him.
“Look, my problem is I have established a very good personal relationship with President Xi. I really feel that he is doing everything in his power to help us with a big situation,” he said.
“So I wouldn’t want to be causing difficulty right now for him. I think he’s doing an amazing job as a leader, and I wouldn’t want to do anything that comes in the way of that. So I would certainly want to speak to him first,” he said.
In December, the U.S. president-elect shocked many by taking a call from Tsai and then tweeting about it repeatedly, raising questions about whether the new U.S. administration would take a tougher line on China and bolster its ties to Taiwan.
In the months since, however, Trump has moved in the opposite direction, reassuring China, inviting Xi to tea at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida and, on Thursday, directly praising the Chinese president’s leadership — all in the name of getting China’s help on North Korea.
As is often the case with the U.S. president, it is not clear whether Thursday’s comments amount to a change in policy or are just another off-the-cuff remark. Either way, it will not play well in Taipei.
Although the U.S. media initially cast the Trump-Tsai call as a gaffe, much of Taiwan saw it as a deft diplomatic maneuver.
As a thriving democracy on an island that Beijing claims as part of China, Taiwan often sees its international efforts blocked by the authoritarian power across the strait.
When the United States opened diplomatic relations with China in 1979, it broke off formal ties with Taiwan. Under what is known as the one-China policy, Washington acknowledges China’s contention that there is only one Chinese government but does not endorse that stance, and maintains “robust unofficial” relations with the island.
Under Trump’s and Tsai’s predecessors, Presidents Barack Obama and Ma Ying-jeou, Taiwan-U.S. ties were not a particular focus. Ma ran on a promise to pursue closer economic and trade links with China, and the Obama administration for the most part took a hands-off approach.
Many in Taipei and Washington worried that the United States was not doing enough for Taiwan. So when Trump won the election, Tsai’s government worked with allies in Washington to set up a congratulatory call.
Tsai’s government saw the call as a good way to get on Trump’s agenda and to show strategic clout. Many felt it did just that — that is, until the U.S. president changed course.
“Trump’s latest retreat in foreign policy — stating that he would want to consult with Xi Jinping before again speaking to Tsai Ing-wen — is a clear disappointment to those who hoped Trump’s policy toward Taiwan would demonstrate a new flexibility,” said William A. Stanton, who served as de facto U.S. ambassador to Taiwan from 2009 to 2012 and now heads the Center for Asia Policy at Taiwan’s National Tsing Hua University.
Bonnie S. Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the timing of Tsai’s interview and comments were far from ideal and could hinder progress in U.S.-Taiwan economic and military ties.
“Trump is seeking China’s help on North Korea at this moment and is therefore willing to avoid challenging Chinese interests in other areas,” she added. “This may make it difficult for Tsai to make near-term progress in negotiating a free-trade agreement with the U.S. or buying F-35s.”
All this is good news for Beijing, which will count the comments about Taiwan — and Xi — as a coup.
Wu Xinbo, a professor at the Center for American Studies at Shanghai’s Fudan University, said Trump had “learned his lesson” and “would not provoke China again.”
“Trump will not sacrifice cooperation with China for Taiwan, especially now that there is such positive momentum after the meetings between the two leaders,” Wu said, referring to Xi’s visit to Mar-a-Lago. “He wouldn’t be so foolish to accept Tsai Ing-wen’s phone call now.”
Other experts stressed that the balance between the United States, China and Taiwan is apt to tilt yet again as the new U.S. president tries his hand at foreign policy.
“It may of course be that like so many of his policy pronouncements, this romance with Xi will not last,” Stanton said.
“Trump was first willing to trade the continuance of the U.S. one-China policy for a trade deal with China, then willing to trade bilateral trade issues with China for help with North Korea, and now seems ready to sell improved relations with Taiwan for his imagined friendship with China’s leader,” he said.
Shen Dingli, deputy director of the Institute for International Studies at Fudan, said Trump’s approach does not necessarily mean that he always will side with China.
“He is evaluating what China can offer him and what Taiwan can give him,” he said.
“If China does not help him, then the momentum will change,” Shen said. “If Taiwan will help him, he will pick up the phone again.”
Congcong Zhang and Luna Lin in Beijing contributed to this report.