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Trump Talks With Taiwan, In A Move That May Spell Friction With China


Today, President-elect Donald Trump spoke by phone to Tsai Ing-wen, the president of Taiwan. That breaks nearly four decades of diplomatic protocol and threatens to upset U.S. relations with China. NPR's Rob Schmitz joins us to talk about this. Hi, Rob.


SHAPIRO: Donald Trump has had so many telephone conversations with world leaders. Explain why this one with the leader of Taiwan is so much more fraught.

SCHMITZ: Well, this is really unprecedented. China has long considered Taiwan a renegade province, and no U.S. president is believed to have spoken to a Taiwanese leader since 1979. That was when the United States formally severed diplomatic ties to the island after recognizing the People's Republic of China. This is what's known as the one-China policy. So for a president-elect to speak directly to the president of Taiwan is unprecedented. And this will, you know, threaten to harm China-U.S. relations.

SHAPIRO: From the White House, we know that tonight a spokesperson for the National Security Council said this does not reflect any change in the formal U.S. posture. What has the Chinese response been?

SCHMITZ: Well, there hasn't been - it's morning time here in China. There hasn't been a response yet. But China's government will likely respond to this. And it will likely be a very strong and negative response.

SHAPIRO: Now, Donald Trump tweeted that Tsai Ing-wen called him, not the other way around. But Taiwan's government says the call was arranged in advance by both sides. Ultimately, is it important who called whom here?

SCHMITZ: I think it's pretty important. I mean, if this wasn't an international incident already, it's becoming more of one now that Trump is insisting that Taiwan called him and Taiwan's government says Trump's team worked with Taiwan to set up the call in advance, essentially catching the U.S. president-elect in a lie.

Whatever happened, Trump did make a choice to speak to Tsai Ing-wen and then made another choice to issue a press release about that conversation. So regardless, I think the big question here is was this a case of Trump being Trump, you know, acting impulsively or off the cuff in making or accepting what he thought was a casual polite call of congratulations, or was this a more calculated signal that Trump and his team wanted to send to China's leadership that we're going to break with 37 years of diplomatic protocol here and we're going to do things my way?

You know, certainly, Trump's advisers on China are a hawkish group. They've written about the importance of recognizing Taiwan, and it's likely they would approve of testing China's leadership like this. You know, China has been testing its relationship with the United States by building artificial islands in the South China Sea. And it's possible China's leadership would have done something early in Trump's presidency that would have tested him. This is something that China's government has done in the past. But with this phone conversation, China finds itself on the defensive, you know, kind of a little off-balance. And it will be interesting to see how China's leadership responds to all of this.

SHAPIRO: We've reported on Trump's business interests around the world. Those include in Taiwan. Could that have had something to do with the call?

SCHMITZ: It could have. You know, the CEO of Trump's hotel group visited Taiwan earlier this year to discuss building a hotel there. But the other thing is that he also visited Hong Kong in October. This was a few weeks before the election. And at that conference, he actually announced that the Trump hotel group would build 20 to 30 hotels in mainland China. So I'm not sure if his business interests, you know, on either side would be interfering with this. But it's a big question right now.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Rob Schmitz speaking with us from China on President-elect Donald Trump's nearly unprecedented phone call with the leader of Taiwan. Thanks, Rob.

SCHMITZ: Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.
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