President-elect Donald Trump spoke Friday with Taiwan’s president, a major departure from decades of U.S. policy in Asia and a breach of diplomatic protocol with ramifications for the incoming president’s relations with China.
The call is the first known contact between a U.S. president or president-elect with a Taiwanese leader since before the United States broke diplomatic relations with the island in 1979. China considers Taiwan a province, and news of the official outreach by Trump is likely to infuriate the regional military and economic power.
The exchange is one of a string of unorthodox conversations with foreign leaders that Trump has held since his election. It comes at a particularly tense time between China and Taiwan, which earlier this year elected a president, Tsai Ing-wen, who has not endorsed the notion of a unified China. Her election angered Beijing to the point of cutting off all official communication with the island government.
It is not clear whether Trump intends a more formal shift in U.S. relations with Taiwan or China. On the call, Trump and Tsai congratulated each other on winning their elections, a statement from Trump’s transition office said.
“During the discussion, they noted the close economic, political, and security ties . . . between Taiwan and the United States,” the statement said.
A statement from the Taiwanese president’s office said the call lasted more than 10 minutes and included discussion of economic development and national security, and about “strengthening bilateral relations.”
Tsai expressed admiration for Trump’s success in a highly competitive election, the statement said.
The Trump-Tsai conversation was first reported by the Financial Times and the Taipei Times.
Ned Price, a White House spokesman, declined to comment on reports that Beijing contacted the White House on Friday. Price emphasized: “There is no change to our long-standing policy on cross-Strait issues. We remain firmly committed to our ‘One China’ policy based on the three Joint Communiques and the Taiwan Relations Act. Our fundamental interest is in peaceful and stable cross-Strait relations.”
Asked about Trump’s call during a conference on international affairs in Beijing early Saturday, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, called it a “small action” that “cannot change China’s standing in international society.”
The breach of protocol will “not change the One China policy that the U.S. government has supported for many years,” he said. “The One China principle is the foundation for healthy development of Sino-U.S. relations. We don’t wish for anything to obstruct or ruin this foundation.”
The president-elect tweeted out Friday evening, “The president of Taiwan CALLED ME today to wish me congratulations on winning the Presidency.”
Later, Trump sent another tweet, apparently in response to criticism of the Taiwan call as potentially reckless: “Interesting how the U.S. sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call.”
A senior adviser to Trump suggested that he knew about the long-standing U.S. policy toward Taiwan when the call occurred.
“He’s well aware of what U.S. policy has been,” Kellyanne Conway said in an interview with CNN on Friday night.
Conway bristled when asked whether Trump was properly briefed before the call on the government’s long-standing policy, questioning why President Barack Obama did not receive similar queries about his knowledge of foreign affairs.
“President-elect Trump is fully briefed and fully knowledgeable about these issues . . . regardless of who’s on the other end of the phone,” she said.
Ric Grenell, a former George W. Bush administration spokesman at the United Nations, who was spotted visiting with Trump transition team officials at Trump Tower on Friday, said the president-elect’s call was planned in advance and that Trump took the call on purpose.
“It was totally planned,” Grenell said. “It was a simple courtesy call. People need to calm down. The ‘One China’ policy wasn’t changed. Washington, D.C., types need to lighten up.”
The United States has pursued the “One China” policy since 1972, when then-President Richard M. Nixon visited China. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter recognized Beijing as the legitimate government of China, and Washington closed its embassy in Taiwan a year later. A deliberately ambiguous relationship between Washington and Taiwan has existed since.
China guards the structures of its formal relationship with the United States very carefully – especially the founding document that established the One China policy. U.S. officials typically tiptoe around any mention of Taiwan or the Chinese goal of full reunification.
“This phone call calls into question whether or not Trump adheres to the basic foundation of the U.S.-China relationship,” said Evan Medeiros, a former top China adviser to President Obama who is now an adviser at the Eurasia Group. “This action guarantees that U.S.-China relations under Trump will get off to a very rocky start.”
Trump’s growing team of national-security and foreign-policy advisers includes several people who have been strong supporters of Taiwan in Republican administrations. They include Stephen Yates, deputy national security adviser under Vice President Richard Cheney, who was reported to be visiting Taiwan when the call occurred.
Trump apparently considered hotel investments in Taiwan earlier this year. The mayor of Taoyuan said last month that a representative from the Trump Organization had visited and was interested in constructing hotels in the northwestern Taiwanese city, according to China Times. Trump has said he will separate himself from his businesses before he is inaugurated.
In recent years, in the face of Taiwan’s waning economic power and decreasing international recognition as a separate entity from mainland China, Taiwanese diplomatic representatives in Washington have been trying to raise their stature. They have courted government officials and journalists with Taiwanese film screenings, expensive soirees and other cultural events around town.
For years it has looked like a losing battle. But the Trump call could constitute a major and unexpected coup for Taiwan’s new administration by showing the island’s continued relevance.
Michael Green, a senior Asia adviser to Bush, said the call will not necessarily lead to lasting bad blood with China.
“Taiwan is a very good friend, and it is good to let the world know that,” Green said, adding, “The president-elect’s phone call may have been unconventional, but it’s not completely unprecedented.”
President Ronald Reagan infuriated the Chinese by inviting a Taiwanese delegation to his inaugural ball, and his administration included a long-running tussle over whether to “re-prioritize Taiwan,” Green said.
Bush caused a kerfuffle when he suggested the United States might defend Taiwan militarily, but that, too, blew over, Green noted.
Republican reaction was mostly cautious but approving.
“America’s policy toward Taiwan is governed by the Taiwan Relations Act, under which we maintain close ties with Taiwan and support its democratic system,” said Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark. “I commend President-elect Trump for his conversation with President Tsai Ing-wen, which reaffirms our commitment to the only democracy on Chinese soil.”
The Democratic National Committee said the call may mean the businessman is “prioritizing his personal fortune over the security interests of the nation.”
“Donald Trump is either too incompetent to understand that his foolish phone call threatens our national security, or he’s doing it deliberately because he reportedly wants to build hotels in Taiwan to pad his own pockets,” said DNC spokesman Eric Walker.
Earlier Friday, Trump reportedly extended an invitation for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to visit the United States next year. That would mark a startling turnabout for a foreign leader who famously called Obama a “son of a whore.”
Trump transition officials confirmed the Duterte call but did not say whether Trump had issued the invitation.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the mold-breaking Republican has infused the usually banal routine of congratulatory calls from foreign leaders with drama.
Most of the more than 50 calls held by Trump or Vice President-elect Mike Pence came without the knowledge or guidance of the State Department. That means no government talking points about issues of particular importance – or land mines to avoid.
“We stand by to assist and facilitate and support communication that the transition team is having with foreign leaders,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said Friday.
The calls have appeared haphazard and out of order – Russia and Ireland before close ally Britain, for example – and the conversations have a casual tone that the British press sniffed is “un-presidential.”
Some calls, as described by Trump aides or the other country, have elicited a raised eyebrow or two.
There was Trump’s offhand suggestion to British Prime Minister Theresa May to “let me know” if she happened to be coming to town. A state visit typically takes months of planning and involves a numbing amount of diplomatic protocol of the who-sits-where variety.
And there was the conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin in which the two agreed, according to the Kremlin, “on the absolutely unsatisfactory state of bilateral relations” and committed to “normalize” the relationship. The United States and Russia maintain cordial official ties – Secretary of State John Kerry met with the Russian foreign minister Friday – but both countries have accused the other of meddling.
Some Trump communications have yielded questions and worries among U.S. diplomats and foreign powers, most notably a call Wednesday between Trump and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
A vivid account of the conversation released by Pakistan has Trump heaping praise on Sharif as “a terrific guy” and Pakistanis as “one of the most intelligent people.”
The United States – and Trump when he was a candidate – have said Pakistan has not done enough to combat terrorism, and the majority-Muslim country would be heavily affected by Trump’s proposed restrictions on Muslim immigration.
Nonetheless, when Sharif invited him to visit Pakistan, Trump replied that he would “love to come to a fantastic country, fantastic place of fantastic people,” the Pakistani statement said.
A Trump statement came with no such color, but transition officials did not disavow the quotes.
Most disturbing to diplomats in the United States and elsewhere was the Pakistani account of Trump pledging partnership that could suggest favoritism in Pakistan’s eternal – and nuclear armed – rivalry with India.
Trump told Sharif he would “play any role you want me to play to address and find solutions to the country’s problems,” according to the Pakistani account.
China, North Korea and Russia, as well as India, are likely to take note of that, diplomats said.
“The one thing you learn is, you’ve got to be very careful what you say because everything you say or tweet matters,” said William Danvers, a former senior official in the Obama State Department, Pentagon and CIA.
“You have a grace period when you’re president and you deserve it, but it’s mostly a domestic grace period,” Danvers said. “It’s not as if Kim Jong Un is going to say, ‘Oh you just became president, so I’ll hold off on my missile test.’ It kind of makes us look like we don’t know what we’re doing.”
As for Duterte, who had announced a public “breakup” with the United States before the election, the State Department’s Kirby said little.
“I don’t know of any specific support that was provided for that call,” he said. “Our job is to make sure they know we are a ready resource. How they make decisions and how they conduct dialogue and communication with foreign leaders is really for them to decide.”
Trump communications director Jason Miller told reporters Friday that the calls are not off the cuff.
Trump and Pence “are briefed in advance of their calls, obviously working with the teams that we have put together,” Miller said before news of the Duterte call had broken.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest urged Trump to take advantage of diplomatic know-how as he contacts foreign leaders ahead of his inauguration in January.
“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,” Earnest said. “Hopefully he’ll take it.”
Trump’s outreach to Duterte could echo Obama’s election pledge to try to talk to adversaries, although Trump has denounced Obama’s main claims to success in that effort – openings to Iran and Cuba.
Obama presided over a reversal of the U.S. relationship with the Philippines and its new leader. Duterte’s denunciations of the longtime alliance between the two nations and personal insults of Obama prompted the president to cancel a planned meeting with Duterte in China in September.
Duterte has said U.S. troops should leave his country within two years. He also cozied up to Chinese President Xi Jinping, alarming the Obama administration, which had backed the Philippines’ challenge at an international tribunal last summer over China’s maritime claims in waters used by Filipino fishermen. The tribunal ruled against China, but Duterte has signaled a willingness to negotiate a deal with Beijing that could allow the Chinese navy to remain in control of the region.
Carol Morello, John Wagner, David Nakamura, Philip Rucker, William Wan and Mark Berman in Washington and Emily Rauhala in Beijing contributed to this report.