Taiwan president low-key on Trump phone call
Beijing fumes as Tsai plays down contact in interview, denies any shift in policy
TAIPEI, TAIWAN | In her first public comments since a precedent-shattering phone conversation with President-elect Trump, President Tsai Ing-wen on Tuesday was not taking a diplomatic victory lap, stressing instead that “one phone call does not mean a policy shift” between Washington and the island democracy that China regards as its territory.
While Friday’s phone call infuriated Beijing and inspired an exercise in damage control by the Obama administration, the cautious Ms. Tsai outlined a far more modest intent behind the exchange with Mr. Trump, apparently the first direct talk between a Taiwanese leader and an American president or president-elect in four decades.
“The phone call was a way for us to express our respect for the U.S. election as well as to congratulate President-elect Trump on his win,” Ms. Tsai told a small group of American reporters about the call that has made headlines around the world since Mr. Trump tweeted about it over the weekend.
“I do not foresee major policy shifts in the near future because we all see the value of stability in the region,” Ms. Tsai told the U.S. reporters in Taipei on a trip sponsored by the U.S.-backed East-West Center.
Her remarks reflected a cautious posture taken by others in her administration while Mr. Trump and his aides have sent conflicting signals about what planning went into the phone call, which has been widely perceived as a clear nod by the incoming U.S. administration to Taiwanese sovereignty.
The call is believed to have been the first in 40 years between a Taiwanese leader and a U.S. president-elect in the wake of the 1979 “One China” policy, in which Washington recognized China as the sole legal government of the Chinese people and cut off official diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
China lodged a diplomatic protest on Saturday over the call, placing most of the blame not on Mr. Trump but on the Tsai government for engaging in it as a “petty” move to agitate Beijing. China’s Foreign Ministry said it had lodged “stern” protests with what it called the “relevant U.S. side,” implying that it had raised the matter directly with Mr. Trump’s transition team.
While Mr. Trump tweeted Saturday that Ms. Tsai had initiated the call with him, it was unclear whether his tweeting about it was a risky rookie foreign policy mistake or a strategic move to advise China to ready itself for a more muscular posture from the incoming U.S. administration.
A spokesman for Ms. Tsai has said both sides agreed to the call before it took place, according to Reuters, and some in Taiwan’s wider government and diplomatic community said the call clearly involved close planning.
Szu-chien Hsu, president of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, an independent organization with backing from the government, said there’s no way Mr. Trump was acting on impulse with the call.
“I’m thinking it was being prepared for quite a long time,” said Mr. Hsu, a former political science professor in Taiwan, who credited the incoming U.S. president with using the call to generate a strategic advantage over Chinese President Xi Jinping.
“I think Trump has put Xi Jinping in a very awkward position — a difficult position,” Mr. Hsu said. “It’s awkward for Beijing. How do you react to that? If you make too big a deal, then you’re hurting yourself. You’re hurting your possible relationship with Trump.”
On Twitter, Mr. Trump has lashed out at critics who accused him of acting irresponsibly toward the delicate diplomacy over China and Taiwan.
“Did China ask us if it was OK to carry out a number of actions such as build up disputed islands in the South China Sea or take economic measures hurtful to the United States?” Mr. Trump tweeted.
Ms. Tsai’s own rise to the Taiwanese presidency has prompted hope during recent months in Washington for a more pro-U.S. government in Taiwan than that of former President Ma Ying-jeo, a member of Taiwan’s Chinese Nationalist Party, who had spent the previous eight years adopting a more conciliatory posture toward Beijing.