Taiwan's President: Phone Call With Trump 'Doesn't Mean A Policy Shift'

Dec 6, 2016
Originally published on December 16, 2016 10:48 am

The revelation of a phone call between President-elect Donald Trump and Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen last Friday startled leaders and diplomats in Washington, Beijing and beyond. In her first comments on the call, Tsai sought to dampen those fears.

"Of course I have to stress that one phone call does not mean a policy shift," Tsai said on Tuesday in a small meeting with American journalists in Taipei. "The phone call was a way for us to express our respect for the U.S. election as well as congratulate President-elect Trump on his win."

Still, the call was a major departure from decades of diplomatic protocol guiding U.S.-China relations. No U.S. president or president-elect had spoken with a leader of Taiwan since 1979, when the U.S. established relations with China. Diplomats and experts believed the Trump-Tsai conversation could lead to a major rift with China and strain cross-strait relations.

Since late Friday, observers have speculated whether it was simply a congratulatory call — as Vice President-elect Mike Pence has indicated — or signaled a bigger change for U.S.-Taiwan relations, and by extension, China.

Tsai, for her part, sought to play down reading too much into the exchange.

"I do not foresee major policy shifts in the near future because we all see the value of stability in the region," she said.

In Taiwan, news of the phone call has been received enthusiastically from almost all quarters.

Even the KMT, now Taiwan's opposition party, welcomed the move.

"If this kind of opportunity presented itself, anyone would take it," said Szu-chien Hsu, president of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy. "We have the feeling that the world has forgotten about us. It is as though we don't exist ... but we do!"

Even if this development doesn't represent a shift in policy, the phone call doesn't preclude some change in U.S.-Taiwan ties. Tsai's government may seek to increase its contact with the Trump administration.

"We believe we will have more frequent communication with the new administration," said Chui-Cheng Chiu, deputy minister of the Mainland Affairs Council, which oversees ties with China.

That itself could be provocative for Beijing. China's response thus far has been restrained. Government officials in Taipei acknowledge that this is only Beijing's initial response.

Said Chiu, "It is still an ongoing event."

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Donald Trump is following through on his promise to disrupt the U.S.-China status quo. Last week, he became the first U.S. president or president-elect in almost 40 years to speak with the president of Taiwan. Beijing was not happy. It considers Taiwan a province of the mainland and objects when Taiwan acts like an independent country with its own foreign policy. Taiwan's president, Tsai Ing-wen, hasn't spoken about her phone call with Trump until now. For more, we go to the Taiwanese capital, Taipei, and NPR's international editor Will Dobson. Good morning, Will.


MARTIN: How did this come about? And what exactly did President Tsai say?

DOBSON: So I'm traveling with a small group of journalists, who - we had a meeting scheduled with President Tsai ahead of time. And fortunately, the president decided to keep the meeting...

MARTIN: Did someone ask about the Trump comments, or did she just bring it up?

DOBSON: Oh, yes. This was her first opportunity to speak with any journalists. And so - I'll read exactly what she said because, I think, in this instance, language is very important. She said (reading) of course, I have to stress that one phone call does not mean a policy shift. The phone call was a way for us to express our respect for the U.S. election, as well as congratulate President-Elect Trump on his win. I do not foresee major policy shifts in the near future because we all see the value of stability in the region.

MARTIN: But she knows that it's a big deal for the Taiwanese president to talk on the phone with a president-elect of the United States. So what's her play in all this? What is she trying to do?

DOBSON: Well, I mean, people that I've spoken to here in the last two days said, you know, President Tsai is a very cautious person. She is a technocrat, a trade negotiator, a real wonk. But they said it doesn't matter because an opportunity like this, any Taiwanese leader would take it. And so this is a chance to really challenge the international isolation that Taiwan has felt, so she seized it. But, you know, she's very quick. And she was quick today to really make clear that this isn't something more than what we know, that we shouldn't read more into this call, that it is simply this and nothing more.

MARTIN: Of course, Donald Trump reiterated that. And he said in a tweet, the phone call was not a big deal. That, in turn, seems to upset the Chinese even more, dismissing this because, of course, they see this as a repudiation of the One-China policy - this idea that China and Taiwan are part of the same country.

DOBSON: Right. You know, the Chinese see it as very serious. You know, the status of Taiwan is a top priority for the Chinese leadership. It's something that's viewed in highly nationalistic, populist terms. And it's something that Beijing has made clear for a long, long time that is completely non-negotiable. You can go back - it's now 21 years - that the last time that a U.S. administration surprised the Chinese government on Taiwan was when the Clinton administration in 1995, after repeatedly assuring the Chinese that they would not grant a visa to then Taiwanese leader Lee Teng-hui to visit his alma mater, Cornell, did precisely that.

And people that I've spoken to in Taiwan say that they credit that decision of having a greater weight in the Chinese government's decision the following year to begin massive military exercises off the coast of Taiwan, which led to then President Clinton sending two carrier groups to bring down the tension and ultimately have the Chinese stand down, which was the largest concentration of naval power in East Asia since the Vietnam War.

MARTIN: On the one hand, Donald Trump himself is saying it's not a big deal. His transition team has let it be known that the phone call was meant to be provocative. The Wall Street Journal is reporting this morning that former Senator Bob Dole actually helped arrange it. What does it mean looking forward, Will?

DOBSON: Well, from the Taiwanese point of view, you really can't overestimate how much they feel isolated in international communities. So to have this connection between an incoming president and a current president is something - well, it hasn't happened in almost 40 years.

MARTIN: NPR's international editor Will Dobson on the line from Taipei, the capital of Taiwan. Thanks so much, Will.

DOBSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.