Trump makes history with phone call to Taiwan leader

Donald Trump spoke on the phone with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, a conversation that breaks decades of U.S. protocol and risks a clash with China.

Trump’s transition team confirmed late Friday that the president-elect had spoken by phone on Friday with Taiwan’s president, the first conversation between a U.S. president or president-elect with Taiwan’s leader since 1979, when the two countries severed diplomatic ties. 

Trump later tweeted that Tsai initiated the conversation. 

The Financial Times first reported the conversation.

The Taiwanese leader “offered her congratulations” to Trump and the two leaders “noted the close economic, political, and security ties exists between Taiwan and the United States,” according to a statement from Trump’s team.

Tsai’s office said in its on statement that the pair spoke for about 10 minutes and also discussed the regional issues.

“During the call President Tsai and President-elect Trump, besides having an intimate and relaxed conversation, also shared their views and concepts on future important policy points,” a translation of the statement read. “In particular, to promote the domestic economy and strengthen national defense, allowing the people better lives and a guarantee of security. The two briefly exchanged opinions on the situation in the Asia region.”

The White House was not given advance notice about the call, according to an administration official.

The phone call will almost certainly infuriate Beijing, which sees Taiwan as a breakaway province.

Jimmy Carter formally declared Beijing the sole government of China in 1979, which ended formal U.S. diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

The White House reaffirmed the so-called “One China” policy after Trump’s call. 

“There is no change to our longstanding policy on cross-Strait issues,” said Ned Price, a spokesman for the National Security Council. “Our fundamental interest is in peaceful and stable cross-Strait relations.”

It’s not clear how the call between Trump and Tsai came about. But the Taipei Times appeared to contradict Trump, reporting that Trump’s staff organized the call.

Speaking on CNN Friday evening, top Trump aide Kellyanne Conway said that Trump is “well-aware of what U.S. policy has been” toward Taiwan, but wouldn’t elaborate on the call.

Foreign-policy experts say the call could alter U.S.-China relations, regardless of how it was arranged.

“I would guess that President-elect Trump does not really comprehend how sensitive Beijing is about this issue,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 

Conway said Trump is not trying to craft any policy before taking office.

But even if the call didn’t have a particular policy aim, it could play into pre-existing concerns the Chinese have about the president-elect’s posture toward their country.  

Trump did call Chinese President Xi Jinping after his election win. Xi reportedly congratulated Trump on his victory, while Trump’s transition team said the two had “established a clear sense of mutual respect for one another.” 

“That is something that could be put in jeopardy by a U.S.-Taiwan relationship from the point of view of Beijing,” said Glaser.

Xi will almost certainly issue a stern response given the strategic importance of Taiwan, according to Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

“Taiwan is the core interest for China,” said Daly. “He will have to make some kind of strong statement.” 

During his campaign, Trump frequently criticized U.S. politicians for allowing jobs to move to China, arguing things would change under his leadership.

Trump has also relied on the counsel of some policy advisers, such as Peter Navarro, who have expressed pro-Taiwan views. 

The call with Taiwan is just the latest Trump discussion with a foreign leader to make headlines. 

Trump’s call this week with Pakistan’s leader also raised eyebrows after that country’s government released a readout that said the president-elect had discussed going to Pakistan — something President Obama did not do while in office.

And Trump made waves on Friday with a report that he had invited the controversial leader of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, to the White House.

Thousands of extrajudicial killings carried out in the Philippine government’s war on drugs has strained relations with the U.S. Obama scrapped a meeting with the leader during an international summit this fall after he called the president a “son of a whore.”

The White House has urged Trump to consult with diplomats and policymakers from the State Department to better plan out his conversations with foreign leaders, saying Obama has “benefitted enormously” from doing so.

“I’m confident that as President-elect Trump takes office, those same State Department employees will stand ready to offer him advice as he conducts the business of the United States overseas,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Thursday. “Hopefully he’ll take it.”

Trump spokesman Jason Miller told reporters this week that Trump is briefed in advance of his calls, but did not say whether the State Department is involved.

Trump’s business ties have also been raised as a potential conflict of interest in his foreign policy dealings.

The Shanghaiist reported last month that Trump was eyeing a major real estate project in Taiwan that would involve the construction of several luxury hotels and resorts.

Updated at 10:05 p.m.

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