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Taiwan's leader says call with Trump didn't reflect US policy change

By LAVANYA RAMANATHAN AND SIMON DENYER | The Washington Post | Published: December 6, 2016

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen said Tuesday that her phone call with President-elect Donald Trump should not be interpreted a significant shift in American policy, and stressed that both sides see the value of maintaining regional stability.

"Of course I have to stress that one phone call does not mean a policy shift," she told a small group of American reporters 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."

Trump's phone call with Tsai broke four decades of diplomatic protocol, alarming some commentators who feared it could spark a dangerous confrontation with China.

Others though, especially Republicans, have welcomed it as a sign that Trump will not be bullied by China, and believe the United States should offer more support to Taiwan's island democracy.

Sources in Trump's team said the call was planned weeks in advance to establish the incoming president as a break from the past, although Vice President-elect Mike Pence described it as a "courtesy" call, not intended to show a shift in U.S. policy on China.

Tsai echoed that line.

"I do not foresee major policy shifts in the near future because we all see the value of stability in the region," she said.

China has reacted with relative calm to the call, lodging what it called a "solemn protest" with the U.S. government, but also underlining that its economic and diplomatic relationship with Washington depends on the U.S. acceptance of the "one China" principle, which recognizes Beijing as the sole representative of the Chinese nation.

Beijing blocks Taiwan from taking part in almost all international bodies. Tsai's office said she had told Trump during the phone call that she hoped the United States "would continue to support more opportunities for Taiwan to participate in international issues."

Reacting to criticism of the call, Trump himself pointed out that the United States sells billions of dollars of arms to Taiwan. Indeed, in December 2015, the Obama administration announced a $1.83 billion arms sale package for Taiwan, including two frigates, anti-tank missiles, amphibious assault vehicles and other equipment, drawing an angry response from China.

Beijing has already increased the pressure on Taiwan since Tsai's election, upset that she has not publicly endorsed the "one China" principle - although she consistently expresses the need for dialogue.

Tourists arrivals from mainland China have fallen this year, and China blocked Taiwanese officials from attending the International Civil Aviation Summit in Montreal as well as the Interpol general assembly in Bali, Indonesia, despite efforts from Washington to secure their admission.

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi appeared to blame Taiwan for the phone call, calling it a "petty" move, and the nationalist Global Times tabloid initially recommended that Beijing should continue to talk to Trump but punish Taiwan.

Michael Cole, a Taipei-based Senior Non Resident Fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, wrote that this could include renewed efforts to deny Taiwan access at various multilateral organizations, the stealing of diplomatic allies, punitive economic measures and more intense or frequent military exercises aimed at Taiwan.

If that happens, the domestic support Tsai has received for her call could be countered by greater tensions with China, he said, "What remains to be seen is what kind of ally Taiwan will have in Washington if and when such a shift occurs in the Taiwan Strait," he wrote in The National Interest.

On Tuesday, there were also signs of growing concern in Beijing that Trump's constant criticism of China in his speeches and on Twitter might actually mean something. His latest salvo - complaining about China's currency and trade policy, and its actions in the South China Sea - sparked a frustrated response in the Global Times.

"Trump's China-bashing tweet is just a cover for his real intent, which is to treat China as a fat lamb and cut a piece of meat off it," it wrote. "China should brace itself for the possible fluctuations of the Sino-US relationship after Trump is sworn in. We must confront Trump's provocations head-on, and make sure he won't take advantage of China at the beginning of his tenure."

Communist mouthpiece the People's Daily took a more measured line, arguing that dialogue was vital to maintain friendly relations and correct some of Trump's "inaccurate" criticisms of China.

"Trump's recent demeanor has proved people's doubts on his inexperience in diplomatic relations. In fact, Trump is not that ignorant on China and China-U.S. relations, he has some sensible understandings and his own take on matters. But the problem is that Trump's rhetoric shows that he only knows one side of China and China-U.S. relations," it wrote in a front-page editorial on its overseas edition.

"At the present, the peaceful transition of China-U.S. relations is the key task that both countries face. It depends on joint efforts, not just good wishes from one side."

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The Washington Post's Congcong Zhang contributed from Beijing.
 

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen attends a briefing in Taipei on July 20, 2016.
BILLY H.C. KWOK/BLOOMBERG

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