In a shocking twist no one could have seen coming, it turns out that Beijing doesn’t like the fact that President-elect Donald Trump had a phone conversation with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-Wen. Still, China seemed to try to put the brakes on any overreaction regarding the call, mostly describing the communication as a gimmick, or “little trick,” by Taiwan. On Saturday, China lodged a formal diplomatic protest over the 10-minute phone conversation, which marked the first time a U.S. president or president-elect knowingly spoke with Taiwan’s leadership since 1979.
China “has lodged solemn representations with the relevant U.S. authorities,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement on its website. The statement went on to note that Washington should be careful to unnecessarily disturb bilateral ties. “The one China principle is the political basis of the China-U.S. relationship,” the statement added.
The formal complaint came hours after China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, seemed to try to play down the significance of the call. “This is just the Taiwan side engaging in a petty action, and cannot change the ‘one China’ structure already formed by the international community,” Wang said. “I believe that it won’t change the longstanding ‘one China’ policy of the United States government.”
It remains unclear whether Trump actually wanted to send a sign about bilateral relations with China under his administration, but the president-elect also seemed to play down the call. On Twitter, Trump essentially made it seem like he just happened to be around when the Taiwanese president called, and, hey it would have been rude not to pick up. “The President of Taiwan CALLED ME today to wish me congratulations on winning the Presidency. Thank you!” Except, a spokesman for the Taiwan government quickly contradicted the U.S. president-elect, saying the call had been arranged in advance: “Of course both sides agreed ahead of time before making contact.”
Trump then took to Twitter again apparently to express surprise that international geopolitical issues could be more complicated than they seem at first glance. “Interesting how the US sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call,” Trump tweeted.
An editorial in China’s Global Times appears to imply that Beijing leadership could see Trump’s call as a mistake from a beginner, but it could also have broader implications:
Trump is not familiar with foreign relations and has been known for not playing by the rules since he started running for president. Before he gets sworn in, he faces some vague space to handle things. By answering Tsai’s call he may want to test how China would react and therefore prepare him for dealing with the country and gaining some advantage after he takes office.
So far analysts seem a bit split between those who think that Trump is just clueless and has no advisers to really help him navigate the intricacies of foreign policy and others who say it should be seen as more of what could be in store when the real estate mogul takes office. “My guess is that Trump himself doesn’t have clue,” Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, tells the Washington Post. “That he had no idea about Beijing’s neuralgia on Taiwan.” Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor at Renmin University in Beijing, sees things a bit differently and thinks Trump was sending a “very clear” message. “The US president-elect hates China and will encourage Tsai to resist pressure from the mainland,” he tells the Financial Times.
The White House made clear it wasn’t notified of the call in advance and there has been no change in the U.S. policy toward China. Still, it marked only the latest example of how the president-elect has turned a congratulatory phone call into a matter of state. Earlier in the week, Trump praised Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif as a “terrific guy” and extended an invitation to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who called Obama a “son of a whore,” to go to Washington.
The way in which Trump may be sparking international crises before even being sworn into office has made some political leaders sound the alarm. “Foreign policy consistency is a means, not an end. It’s not sacred. Thus, it’s Trump’s right to shift policy, alliances, strategy,” Sen. Chris Murphy from Connecticut tweeted. “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.”