Trump's Taiwan phone call intentionally provocative, deliberations on engagement started before presidential nomination

US President-elect Donald Trump in St. Louis, Missouri on Oct 9, 2016 and Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen in Panama City on June 27, 2016.
US President-elect Donald Trump in St. Louis, Missouri on Oct 9, 2016 and Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen in Panama City on June 27, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - Mr Donald Trump's protocol-breaking telephone call with Taiwan's leader was an intentionally provocative move that establishes the incoming president as a break with the past, according to interviews with people involved in the planning.

The historic communication - the first between leaders of the United States and Taiwan since 1979 - was the product of months of quiet preparations and deliberations among Mr Trump's advisers about a new strategy for engagement with Taiwan that began even before he became the GOP presidential nominee, according to people involved in or briefed on the talks.

The call also reflects the views of hard-line advisers urging Mr Trump to take a tough opening line with China, said others familiar with the months of discussion about Taiwan and China.

Mr Trump and his advisers have sought to publicly portray the call the President-elect took from Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen last Friday (Dec 2) as a routine congratulatory call. He noted on Twitter that she placed the call.

"He took the call, accepted her congratulations and good wishes and it was precisely that," Vice President-elect Mike Pence said on Sunday on ABC's This Week.

 
 

That glosses over the extensive and turbulent history of US relations with Taiwan and the political importance the island and its democratic traditions hold for many Republican foreign policy specialists.

Some critics portrayed the move as the thoughtless blundering of a foreign policy novice, but other experts said it appeared calculated to signal a new, robust approach to relations with China.

China reacted sternly to the Taiwan call, suggesting that it shows Mr Trump's inexperience.

Mr Trump sent a pair of Twitter messages on Sunday that echoed his campaign-stump blasts against China.

"Did China ask us if it was OK to devalue their currency (making it hard for our companies to compete), heavily tax our products going into their country (the U.S. doesn't tax them) or to build a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea?" he asked. "I don't think so!"

The United States does impose a tax on Chinese goods - 2.9 per cent for non-farm goods and 2.5 per cent for agricultural products.

Some of the Republican Party's most ardent Taiwan proponents are playing active roles in Trump's transition team, and others in the conservative foreign policy community see a historic opportunity to reset relations with Taiwan and reposition it as a more strategic ally in East Asia.

Several leading members of Mr Trump's transition team are considered hawkish on China and friendly towards Taiwan, including incoming chief of staff Reince Priebus.

Indeed, advisers explicitly warned last month that relations with China were in for a shake-up.

In an article for Foreign Policy magazine titled "Donald Trump's Peace Through Strength Vision for the Asia-Pacific", Mr Peter Navarro and Mr Alexander Gray called Taiwan a "beacon of democracy in Asia" and complained that its treatment by the Obama administration was "egregious".

The article, flagged to China experts as a significant policy blueprint, described Taiwan as "the most militarily vulnerable US partner anywhere in the world" and called for a comprehensive arms deal to help it defend itself against China.

Friday's phone call does not necessarily mean that will happen, but it does look like the first sign of a recalibration by a future Trump administration, experts say.

It was planned weeks ahead by staffers and Taiwan specialists on both sides, according to people familiar with the plans.

Immediately after Mr Trump won the Nov 8 election, his staff compiled a list of foreign leaders with whom to arrange calls.

"Very early on, Taiwan was on that list," said Mr Stephen Yates, a national security official during the presidency of Mr George W. Bush and an expert on China and Taiwan. "Once the call was scheduled, I was told that there was a briefing for President-elect Trump. They knew that there would be reaction and potential blowback."

Mr Alex Huang, a spokesman for Ms Tsai, told the Reuters news agency: "Of course both sides agreed ahead of time before making contact."

Ms Tsai's office said she had told Mr Trump during the phone call that she hoped the United States "would continue to support more opportunities for Taiwan to participate in international issues".

Ms Tsai will have some sympathetic ears in the White House. Mr Reince Priebus is reported to have visited Taiwan with a Republican delegation in 2011 and in October 2015, meeting Ms Tsai before she was elected president. Taiwan Foreign Minister David Lee called him a friend of Taiwan and said his appointment as Mr Trump's chief of staff was "good news" for the island, according to local media.

Mr Edward Feulner, a longtime former president of the Heritage Foundation, has for decades cultivated extensive ties with Taiwan and is now serving as an adviser to Mr Trump's transition team.

At the Republican National Convention in July, Mr Trump's allies inserted a little-noticed phrase into the party's platform reaffirming support for six key assurances to Taiwan made by President Ronald Reagan in 1982 - a priority for the Taiwanese government. Also written into the 2016 platform was tougher language about China than had been in the party's platform in its previous iteration four years ago.

"We salute the people of Taiwan, with whom we share the values of democracy, human rights, a free market economy, and the rule of law," the platform said, adding that the current documents governing US-Taiwan relations should stand but adding: "China's behaviour has negated the optimistic language of our last platform concerning our future relations with China."

Mr Yates, who helped write that portion of the platform, said Mr Trump made clear at the time that he wanted to recalibrate relationships around the world and that the US posture towards China was "a personal priority".

Around the same time, Mr Navarro, one of Trump's top economic and Asia advisers, penned an op-ed saying that the United States must not "dump Taiwan" and needs a comprehensive strategy to bolster what he termed "a beacon of democracy".

The President-elect's advisers have said the communication does not signify any formal shift in long-standing US relations with Taiwan or China, even as they acknowledge that the decision to break with nearly 40 years of US diplomatic practice was a calculated choice.

"Of course all head-of-state calls are well planned," said Mr Richard Grenell, a former State Department official who has advised the Trump transition effort.

Mr Grenell and others noted that the call came about two weeks after Mr Trump had spoken with Chinese President Xi Jinping and that it was not substantive.

"There was no policy discussion, and everyone involved is well aware of the 'one China' policy," Mr Grenell said, referring to the Nixon-era shift that established formal direct ties between Washington and Beijing.

The United States maintains a military relationship with Taiwan, which Beijing considers a province, but closed its embassy there in 1979. Republican administrations since then have emphasised Taiwan's democratic traditions and flirted with the idea of a shift in policy, but none have held public discussions with a Taiwanese leader.

"There are a lot of things that previous Republican presidents, and Democratic presidents, would do that Donald Trump won't do," Mr Grenell said. "He's a man that understands that typical Washington rules are not always best for our foreign policy."

During the campaign, Mr Trump's fiery rhetoric against China resonated with his supporters, especially those in the economically beleaguered Rust Belt states where he registered unexpected wins. He accused China of "raping" the United States by stealing trade secrets, manipulating its currency and subsidising its industries. He vowed to institute tough new policies designed to crack down on the Chinese and extract concessions, such as by imposing higher tariffs on goods manufactured there.

By irritating if not angering the Chinese government with his talk with Ms Tsai, Mr Trump showed his core supporters in the United States that he would follow through with his promise to get tough on China, some observers said.

"He campaigned on an 'America first' platform," said GOP pollster Frank Luntz. "Calls like this may upset the diplomats, but they communicate to Americans that he's not going to play by the same rules and isn't just talking differently but will act differently."

Mr Walter Lohman, director of the Heritage Foundation's Asian Studies Center, said the call with Ms Tsai "was deliberate". He added: "It was not an accident. Obviously he made a conscious decision to have the call arranged. She called him, but there was an agreement for it."

Mr Gordon Chang, an Asia expert and author of The Coming Collapse of China, said Mr Trump's tweet on Friday night that he had just accepted a call from Ms Tsai was "not credible".

"This has all the hallmarks of a prearranged phone call," Mr Chang said. "It doesn't make sense that Tsai out of the blue would call Donald Trump. She is not known for taking big leaps into the unknown, and it would be politically embarrassing when it was learned that she called Trump and he would not take her call."

Ms Kellyanne Conway, a senior adviser to Mr Trump's transition team, brushed aside questions about what the call signals about the incoming administration's priorities and policy on China.

"All he did was receive a phone call," Ms Conway told reporters on Sunday at Trump Tower in New York. "Everybody should just calm down. He's aware of what our nation's policy is."