With a 10-minute phone call and two tweets, Donald Trump inspired banner headlines and renewed hopes across Taiwan for a stronger partnership with the United States, while also inflaming the complex relationships between the United States, mainland China, and the self-governing island China regards as a renegade province.
Whether the US president-elect meant to jump into the generational fight between China and Taiwan remains an open question. But by speaking to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, Trump upended four decades of American foreign policy and engaged China directly on the issue of Taiwan, which Beijing has threatened to reclaim by force if necessary. No American president or president-elect has publicly spoken to Taiwan's leader since the US ended their formal diplomatic relationship in 1979.
Four of his words drew particular attention in Taiwanese newspapers: Trump's reference, in a follow-up tweet, to Tsai being "the President of Taiwan."
The phrase is far from benign for China, which regards any reference to a Taiwanese president as an unacceptable acknowledgement of Taiwan's statehood. Official Chinese pronouncements typically refer to the Taiwanese president as "the Taiwan regional leader."
Chinese leaders have indicated they dislike Tsai, who was elected in January from a pro-Taiwan independence party and became the island's first female president.
Taiwanese are divided over whether they support independence, a formal unification, or the status quo, in which China and Taiwan maintain robust social and economic exchanges while the island retains its democracy and de facto independence. Chinese President Xi Jinping, however, has warned that the issue of unification cannot be put off indefinitely.
Kao-cheng Wang, dean of Tamkang University's college of international studies, said he believes Trump might increase American exports to Taiwan and try to strengthen economic ties between the two sides.
"Trump will not be restricted by the established foreign policy," Wang said. "The diplomatic policy may be flexible after he takes office."
China cut off diplomatic contact with Taiwan in June, one month after Tsai took office, accusing her of refusing to endorse the concept that Taiwan is a part of China. Last month, Xi met with Taiwan's opposition leader, Nationalist Party Chairwoman Hung Hsiu-chu.
The Taiwanese presidential office said Trump and Tsai discussed issues affecting Asia and the future of U.S. relations with Taiwan. Tsai also told Trump that she hoped the US would support Taiwan in its participation in international affairs, the office said, in an apparent reference to China's efforts to isolate Taiwan from global institutions such as the United Nations.
Taiwan's presidential office spokesman Alex Huang said separately that Taiwan's relations with China and "healthy" Taiwan-US relations can proceed in parallel. "There is no conflict (in that)," he told reporters in Taipei on Saturday.
After Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi blamed Taiwanese leaders Saturday for playing a "small trick," China said it would issue a diplomatic complaint with Washington.
That is likely only the beginning of China's response, said Douglas Paal, a former director of the American Institute in Taiwan, which unofficially represents US interests in Taipei.
Wang's comment "is intended to give time for Trump to back away from or desist from moves to elevate treatment of Taiwan," said Paal, now vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "China will watch carefully to see what he does. But Taiwan will be seen as in need of some form of punishment."
One potential move for China is to apply new pressure to the 22 states that have formal diplomatic ties with Taipei, Paal said. Most of the world and the United Nations already recognize Beijing as the official government of China.
What happens next will hinge on whether the call is seen as a "complicated accident" or an intentional signal of new policy, Paal said.
"Beijing will watch closely to see which it is," he said. "But until someone from Trump Tower explains further, it is unknowable."
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