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Trump now says he would check with China before another call with Taiwan's president

By EMILY RAUHALA | The Washington Post | Published: April 28, 2017

SHANGHAI — President Donald Trump said Thursday that he would not speak directly with Taiwan's president without first checking with Chinese president Xi Jinping, a striking reversal sure to rile Taipei and please Beijing.

Trump's comments, made in an interview with Reuters, came a day after Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen told the same news agency that she would be open to a second call with Trump, depending on "the needs of the situation and the U.S. government's consideration of regional affairs."

In his interview, however, Trump spoke warmly about the Chinese president and acknowledged the need not make things "difficult" for him.

"Look, my problem is I have established a very good personal relationship with President Xi. I really feel that he is doing everything in his power to help us with a big situation," he said.

"So I wouldn't want to be causing difficulty right now for him. I think he's doing an amazing job as a leader and I wouldn't want to do anything that comes in the way of that. So I would certainly want to speak to him first," he said.

In December, the U.S. president-elect shocked many by taking a call from Tsai and then tweeting about it repeatedly, raising questions about whether the new U.S. administration would take a tougher line on China and bolster ties to Taiwan.

In the months since, however, Trump has moved in the opposite direction, reassuring China, inviting Xi to sip tea at Mar-a-Lago and, on Thursday, directly praising Chinese president's leadership - all in the name of getting China's help on North Korea.

As is often the case with the U.S. president, it is not clear whether Thursday's comments amount to a change in policy or are just another off-the cuff remark. Either way, it will not play well in Taipei.

Though the U.S. press initially cast the Trump-Tsai call as a gaffe, much of Taiwan saw it as a deft diplomatic maneuver.

As a thriving democracy claimed by the authoritarian power across the strait, Taiwan's international efforts are often blocked by Beijing

When the U.S. opened diplomatic relations with China in 1979, it broke of formal ties to Taiwan. Under what's know as the one-China policy, Washington acknowledges China's contention that there is only one Chinese government but does not endorse it, and maintains "robust unofficial" relations with Taiwan.

Under Tsai's and Trump's predecessors, Barack Obama and Ma Ying-jeou, Taiwan-U.S. ties were not a particular focus; Ma ran on a promise to pursue closer economic and trade links with China and the Obama administration, for the most part, took a hands off approach.

Many in Taipei and Washington worried that the U.S. was not doing enough for Taiwan. So, when Trump swept to power, Tsai's government worked with allies in D.C. to set up a congratulatory call.

Tsai's government saw the call as a good way to get on the president's agenda and to show strategic clout. Many felt it did just that — that is, until Trump changed course.

"Trump's latest retreat in foreign policy — stating that he would want to consult with Xi Jinping before again speaking to Tsai Ing-Wen — is a clear disappointment to those who hoped Trump's policy toward Taiwan would demonstrate a new flexibility," said William A. Stanton, who served as de facto U.S. ambassador to Taiwan from 2009 to 2012 and now heads the Center for Asia Policy at Taiwan's National Tsing Hua University.

Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the timing of Tsai's interview and comments were far from ideal and could hinder progress in U.S.-Taiwan economic and military ties.

"Trump is seeking China's help on North Korea at this moment and is therefore willing to avoid challenging Chinese interests in other areas," she added. "This may make it difficult for Tsai to make near term progress in negotiating a free trade agreement with the U.S., or buying F-35s."

All this is good news for Beijing, which will count the comments about Taiwan — and Xi — as a coup.

Wu Xinbo, a professor at the Center for American Studies at Shanghai's Fudan university said that Trump had "learned his lesson" and "would not provoke China again."

"Trump will not sacrifice cooperation with China for Taiwan, especially now that there is such positive momentum after the meetings between the two leaders," Wu said, referring to the Mar-a-Lago meet. "He wouldn't be so foolish to accept Tsai Ing-wen's phone call now."

Other experts stressed that the balance between the U.S., China and Taiwan is apt to tilt yet again as the new president tries his had at foreign policy.

"It may of course be that, like so many of his policy pronouncements, this romance with Xi will not last," Stanton said.

"Trump was first willing to trade the continuance of the U.S. "one-China" policy for a trade deal with China, then willing to trade bilateral trade issues with China for help with North Korea, and now seems ready to sell improved relations with Taiwan for his imagined friendship with China's leader."

Shen Dingli, deputy director of the Institute for International Studies at Fudan, said Trump's approach does not necessarily mean that he will always side with China.

"He is evaluating what China can offer him and what Taiwan can give him," he said.

"If China does not help him, then the momentum will change; if Taiwan will help him, he will pick up the phone again."
 

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen waves during her inauguration ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Taipei, Taiwan, on May 20, 2016.
BILLY H.C. KWOK/BLOOMBERG

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