Donald Trump has angered China by having a 10 minute phone conversation with the president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen. No American president has spoken officially with the leaders of Taiwan since 1979 and Trump’s conversation has strained US-China relations.
Taiwan’s president phoned Trump and the president-elect spoke briefly to her. News about the call went out in one of the presidential transition team’s regular emails alongside read outs of other calls Trump had made that day. The presidential transition team seemed unaware speaking to Taiwan was a major issue.
Trump tweeted his annoyance that he was being criticized for speaking with President Tsai. He said that Tsai had phoned to congratulate him and he should be able to accept such a phone call. But no president has spoken to a Taiwanese leader in 40 years, at least not on the record.
The question in foreign policy circles is why none of Trump advisers prevented him from taking the call or at least advised him not to make the call public. The US has a complicated relationship with the island. While American policy is committed to defending Taiwan, the US government maintains a formal distance to balance relations with Beijing.
President Tsai Ing-wen may have simply taken a chance that the president-elect was unprepared or ill advised and he would accept a congratulatory phone call. The Taiwanese government is downplaying the call and may not have chosen to make it public if the Trump team hadn’t publicized the call.
The United States recognized Taiwan as the legitimate government of all of China for years following the Communist take over the country’s mainland. But in the 1970s, President Richard Nixon visited China and America began re-opening relations. By 1979, President Jimmy Carter formally recognized the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan was marginalized.