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 the 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, has 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,” says 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.
Says Chiu, “It is still an ongoing event.”