Trump’s call with Tai­wan stirs un­ease, con­fu­sion

Sparks warn­ings from White House, Bei­jing


Whether by ac­ci­dent or de­sign, Pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald Trump is sig­nal­ing a tougher U.S. pol­icy to­ward China, spark­ing warn­ings from both the out­go­ing Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion and Bei­jing.

On Mon­day, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said progress with the Chi­nese could be “un­der­mined” by a flare-up over the sovereignty of Tai­wan, the self-gov­ern­ing is­land the U.S. broke diplo­matic ties with in 1979. That split was part of an agree­ment with China, which claims the is­land as its own ter­ri­tory, although the U.S. con­tin­ues to sell Tai­wan bil­lions of dol­lars’ worth of mil­i­tary equip­ment and has other eco­nomic ties.

Mr. Trump broke 40 years of diplo­matic pro­to­col last week by speak­ing di­rectly with Tai­wanese Pres­i­dent Tsai Ing-wen, then took to Twit­ter to chal­lenge China’s trade and mil­i­tary poli­cies.

“It’s un­clear ex­actly what the strate­gic ef­fort is,” Mr. Earnest said. “I’ll leave that to them to ex­plain.”

So far, Mr. Trump’s ad­vis­ers have strug­gled to ex­plain his ac­tion, send­ing mixed mes­sages about whether the con­ver­sa­tion with Tai­wan’s leader was a step to­ward a new pol­icy or sim­ply a con­grat­u­la­tory call. In­com­ing White House chief of staff Reince Priebus said Mr. Trump “knew ex­actly what was hap­pen­ing” when he spoke with Ms. Tsai, who has ques­tioned closer ties with the main­land, but Vice Pres­i­dent-elect Mike Pence de­scribed the in­ter­ac­tion as “noth­ing more than tak­ing a cour­tesy call of con­grat­u­la­tions.”

Mr. Trump has pledged to be more “un­pre­dictable” on the world stage, billing the ap­proach as a much-needed change from Pres­i­dent Obama’s de­lib­er­a­tive style and pub­lic fore­cast­ing about U.S. pol­icy. But Mr. Trump’s un­pre­dictabil­ity is likely to un­nerve both al­lies and ad­ver­saries, leav­ing glar­ing ques­tions about whether the for­eign pol­icy novice is car­ry­ing out planned strate­gies or act­ing on im­pulse.

China’s au­thor­i­tar­ian gov­ern­ment likes pre­dictabil­ity in its deal­ings with other na­tions, par­tic­u­larly the United States. The U.S. and China are the world’s two largest economies with bi­lat­eral trade in goods and ser­vices reach­ing nearly $660 bil­lion last year.

While there have been sharp dif­fer­ences be­tween Bei­jing and Wash­ing­ton on China’s ag­gres­sive sovereignty claims in the South China Sea and over al­leged Chi­nese cy­bertheft of U.S. com­mer­cial se­crets, the two pow­ers have co­op­er­ated ef­fec­tively on cli­mate change and the Iran nu­clear deal.

Tai­wan split from the Chi­nese main­land in 1949. Amer­i­can pol­icy ac­knowl­edges the Chi­nese view that it has sovereignty over Tai­wan, yet the U.S. con­sid­ers Tai­wan’s sta­tus as un­set­tled. The U.S. is Tai­wan’s main source of weapons, with $14 bil­lion in ap­proved arms sales since 2009.

U.S. diplo­mats were shocked by Mr. Trump’s tele­phone call with the Tai­wanese leader. Sev­eral of­fi­cials pri­vately ex­pressed deep un­ease that Mr. Trump’s team did not in­form the ad­min­is­tra­tion in ad­vance or give it a chance to pro­vide in­put.

Max Bau­cus, the U.S. am­bas­sador to China, spoke about the mat­ter Satur­day with China’s vice for­eign min­is­ter to re­it­er­ate Amer­ica’s one-China pol­icy on be­half of the cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tion.

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