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Pence downplays significance of Trump's call with Taiwan president

By Roberta Rampton
| WASHINGTON

WASHINGTON U.S. Vice President-elect Mike Pence on Sunday downplayed the significance of a phone conversation between Donald Trump and Taiwan’s president, describing it as a “courtesy call” that was not intended to show a shift in U.S. foreign policy.

Trump’s call with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen on Friday was the first by a U.S. president-elect or president with a Taiwanese leader since President Jimmy Carter switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 1979, acknowledging Taiwan as part of “one China.”

The diplomatic contretemps was one of several recently for the president-elect, a real estate magnate who has never held public office and has no foreign affairs or military experience. Trump is still considering who to name as his secretary of state.

China blamed Taiwan for the call, but also lodged a diplomatic protest with the United States on Saturday, saying that the “one China” policy was the bedrock of relations between China and the United States.

Pence called the uproar over the call with “democratically elected” Tsai a “tempest in a teapot.” He blamed the media for the controversy, saying the call was similar in nature to one between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping after the Nov. 8 election.

“I think I would just say to our counterparts in China that this was a moment of courtesy. The president-elect talked to President Xi two weeks ago in the same manner. It was not a discussion about policy,” Pence said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Trump’s policy decisions will come after he takes office on Jan. 20, Pence said.

China’s Foreign Ministry said on Saturday it had lodged “stern representations” with what it called the “relevant U.S. side,” urging caution on the issue.

Pence said he was not aware of any contact between the Trump transition team and the Chinese government since Friday, and said he did not expect Trump’s team to reach out this week to ease tensions with China.

UNCONVENTIONAL DIPLOMACY

Trump and Pence have had more than 50 phone calls with foreign leaders so far. Pence said he spoke with Jordan’s King Abdullah on Saturday.

Trump, known for his unconventional approach to politics, has raised eyebrows with his initial forays into the complex web of international diplomacy as president-elect.

He was praised by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who said in an interview on Sunday that Trump was a “clever man.”

Last week, Trump offered to help Pakistan solve its problems and praised Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif as a “terrific guy” during a phone conversation, the Pakistani leader’s office said.

Asked whether that meant Trump wanted to mediate the long-running border dispute between Pakistan and India, Pence acknowledged recent violence in the Kashmir region.

“I think what the president-elect expressed in conversations with leaders from both countries was a desire for continued U.S. engagement, building the relationship with both of those countries,” Pence told NBC.

He said Trump would show “energetic leadership” in engaging with foreign nations and “look for ways that he can bring those extraordinary deal-making skills to bear on lessening tensions and solving problems in the world.”

Trump last week also spoke with Philippines leader Rodrigo Duterte, who said Trump showed understanding about a deadly crackdown on drug dealers. Duterte has sparred with President Barack Obama, telling him earlier this year to “go to hell” after Obama expressed concerns about possible human rights abuses in Duterte’s war on drugs.

On Sunday, Pence said policy decisions would be made after Trump takes office.

“It will be for the president-elect to decide whether he implements that policy after the inauguration,” Pence said in an interview on ABC’s “This Week.”

Pence also said that Trump may consider new candidates for secretary of state, America’s top diplomat, after having narrowed the field last week to four people.

“We’ve been winnowing the list, but it might grow a little bit,” Pence said on NBC.

Trump will have additional interviews with new candidates for secretary of state in the coming week, Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s senior adviser who managed his campaign, told reporters at Trump Tower on Sunday.

The Associated Press and Fox News both reported Trump was considering Jon Huntsman, a former ambassador to China and Utah governor, for secretary of state. Conway declined to confirm whether Huntsman, who criticized Trump during his race, was in the running.

Huntsman said in the New York Times that he thought Trump was “likely to see Taiwan as a useful leverage point” in dealings with China.

(Additional reporting by John Whitesides in Washington and Melissa Fares in New York; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Alan Crosby)

-Reuters