WASHINGTON U.S. President-elect Donald Trump spoke by phone on Friday with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, a transition team spokeswoman said, in a move likely to infuriate China and expected to complicate relations.
The call, confirmed by Trump transition spokeswoman Hope Hicks, was the first such contact with Taiwan by a president-elect or president since President Jimmy Carter adopted a one-China policy in 1979.
The transition team later issued a statement saying that the two had noted that “close economic, political and security ties exist between Taiwan and the United States.”
An official of Taiwan’s representative office in Washington could not confirm the call but said it would be “historic” and the first contact between U.S. and Taiwanese leaders since diplomatic ties were severed in 1979 and Washington established official ties with Beijing.
The official said the Washington office was not involved in setting up the call. There was no immediate comment from China, which is likely to be angered because it views Taiwan as a renegade province.
A former diplomat who helped arrange the call and did not want to be identified said Chinese officials he spoke to beforehand said they were not troubled by Trump’s phone call because he was not yet president. Trump takes office on Jan. 20.
Tsai Ing-wen was one of four world leaders contacted by Trump on Friday, raising questions about whether he is effectively coordinating with the U.S. State Department before reaching out to leaders overseas.
Advisers to the Republican president-elect have indicated that he is likely to take a more robust policy toward China than Democratic President Barack Obama and that he plans to boost the U.S. military in part in response to China’s increasing power in Asia. However, details of his plans remain scant.
Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Trump was entitled to change policy, but his approach was potentially dangerous.
“Foreign policy consistency is a means, not an end. It’s not sacred. Thus, it’s Trump’s right to shift policy, alliances, strategy,” he said in an note on Twitter. However, he added:
“What has happened in the last 48 hours is not a shift. These are major pivots in foreign policy w/out any plan. That’s how wars start.”
Winston Lord, former U.S. ambassador to China and former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said the strategic importance of Trump’s move was unclear.
“Like so many things with Trump, who knows? This man is ignorant about foreign policy and is flying by the seat of his pants, so it is difficult to assess the significance.
“Having said that, I have no problem with his talking to Madame Tsai; Taiwan is a good friend and although our relations are unofficial, I think it’s important to maintain close bonds with Taiwan.”
Douglas Paal, a former official of the U.S. National Security Council who served as U.S. representative to Taiwan from 2002-2006, said nothing Trump had said in the campaign suggested he wanted to rebuild the relationship with Taiwan relationship at the expense of the China relationship.
“From the information I have so far, this is a standalone item, but the Chinese will feel the need to make a major protest so there isn’t more of this.”
(Reporting by David Brunnstrom, Emily Stephenson, Valerie Volcovici, David Alexander, Yara Baroumy, John Walcott and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Tim Ahmann and Jonathan Oatis)