China Sees New Ambiguity With Donald Trump’s Taiwan Call

President Xi Jinping of China, who considers Taiwan an integral part of his country. Credit Pool photo by Nicolas Asfouri

BEIJING — China’s leaders have been markedly reticent about what kind of leader they think Donald J. Trump will be. A pragmatic dealmaker, as his business background might indicate? Or a provocateur who tests the ways of statecraft?

By talking on Friday with Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, Mr. Trump answered that question in stark terms, Chinese analysts said Saturday. Breaking decades of American diplomatic practice, he caught the Chinese government off guard by lunging into the most sensitive of its so-called core interests, the “One China” policy agreed to by President Richard M. Nixon more than four decades ago.

“This is a wake-up call for Beijing — we should buckle up for a pretty rocky six months or year in the China-U.S. relationship,” Wang Dong, an associate professor at the School of International Studies at Peking University, said Saturday. “There was a sort of delusion based on overly optimistic ideas about Trump. That should stop.”

Chinese leaders covet stability in their relationship with Washington, and perhaps for that reason, they have allowed fairly rosy assessments of Mr. Trump to appear in the state-run news media. Many of those accounts have depicted the president-elect as a practical operator devoid of ideology, the kind of person China might find common ground with despite his threats of a trade war.

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In the hope of maintaining a relatively smooth relationship as Mr. Trump begins his administration, Beijing will probably take a wait-and-see attitude despite his phone call with Ms. Tsai, said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University.

Indeed, China’s first official reaction, from Foreign Minister Wang Yi, was fairly benign — though it was firm in reiterating the One China policy, under which the United States formally recognized Beijing as China’s sole government in 1978 and broke ties with Taiwan a year later. No American president or president-elect had spoken to a Taiwanese president since then.

Mr. Wang blamed Ms. Tsai’s government for arranging the call. “It won’t stand a chance to change the One China policy agreed upon by the international community,” he said.

A follow-up statement from the Foreign Ministry on Saturday, noting that the ministry had filed a formal complaint with the United States government, was similar in tone. It urged “relevant parties in the U.S.” to “deal with the Taiwan issue in a prudent, proper manner.”

China’s leaders disdain Ms. Tsai, of Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party, who was elected president this year after pledging to wean the island off its economic dependence on China, a policy that won enthusiastic support from younger Taiwanese.

China favored her opponent, Hung Hsiu-chu of the Kuomintang, which has sought closer ties with mainland China. Before the election, President Xi Jinping of China met with Ms. Tsai’s predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou, also of the Kuomintang, in the first encounter between the leaders of the two governments, a rapprochement that Beijing had long sought.

Mr. Trump broke a Chinese taboo merely by using Ms. Tsai’s title. The Chinese state news media refer to the Taiwanese president as the “leader of the Taiwan region,” to indicate that Beijing regards Taiwan not as a sovereign nation but as Chinese territory to eventually be brought under its control.


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A basic tenet of the Chinese government is that Taiwan, where Chiang Kai-shek’s forces fled in 1949 after losing China’s civil war, will be brought back into the fold. According to Mr. Xi, Taiwan is destined to become an integral part of his so-called China Dream, a vision of an economically successful Communist China astride the world.

Mr. Trump’s phone call also violated a longstanding principle of American policy: that the president does not speak to the head of Taiwan’s government, despite selling arms to it. “Interesting how the US sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call,” Mr. Trump said on Twitter after the stunned reaction to his conversation with Ms. Tsai.

Though Beijing vehemently protests the arms sales, it also warily acknowledges them as part of long-established practice. Since the mid-1990s, Washington has signaled to Taiwan that it will not support any military effort to gain independence from China.

The Obama administration’s last arms sale to Taiwan, in 2015, was relatively modest — consisting of antitank missiles, two frigates and surveillance gear, worth $1.8 billion in total — but it still provoked a bitter denunciation from Beijing.

Douglas H. Paal, a former director of the American Institute in Taiwan, which represents American interests there, said it would not be surprising if the United States sold arms to Taiwan early in the Trump administration. Beijing’s reaction would depend on the price tag, the kinds of weapons sold and how the administration informed China of the sale, Mr. Paal said.

While it broke diplomatic precedent, Mr. Trump’s conversation with Ms. Tsai could be seen in some ways as following a pattern of Republican presidents’ reaching out to Taiwan, although others did not do so before taking office.

George W. Bush, for example, was vocal in his support of Taiwan early in his presidency, saying in a television interview that the United States would do “whatever it took” to defend it. His aides said afterward that the comment did not reflect a change in the One China policy. By the end of his second term, Mr. Bush had helped to strengthen trade ties between Beijing and Washington through the approval of China’s entry into the World Trade Organization.

Though Mr. Trump has received generally favorable coverage in the state news media, some Chinese analysts have expressed irritation with him, and some have suggested that his administration will offer China opportunities to show strength.

Yan Xuetong, a professor of international relations at Tsinghua University and a foreign policy hawk, said the overall tenor of the China-United States relationship in the coming years would depend a great deal on the personal chemistry between Mr. Trump and Mr. Xi. He said China, with its growing military and the second-largest economy in the world, could largely afford to act as it liked. “China is increasingly resilient to the United States,” he said.

Shen Dingli, a professor of international relations at Fudan University in Shanghai, took a contrarian view of Mr. Trump’s call with Ms. Tsai: He said it was not a problem because Mr. Trump had yet to take office. “He is a private citizen,” he said.

But if such contacts continue after Inauguration Day, Mr. Shen said, China should end diplomatic relations with the United States.

“I would close our embassy in Washington and withdraw our diplomats,” he said. “I would be perfectly happy to end the relationship. I don’t know how you are then going to expect China to cooperate on Iran and North Korea and climate change. You are going to ask Taiwan for that?”

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