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Trump-Taiwan Call Signals Trade Implications, Distancing From Traditional Allies

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

China lodged a protest with the U.S. government yesterday after Donald Trump's phone conversation Friday with the president of Taiwan. That call was the first between a U.S. president, or president-elect, and a Taiwanese leader since the 1970s. That's when the U.S. established relations with China, and China considers Taiwan a breakaway province. To consider the potential implications of that phone call for U.S.-China policy, we've called Princeton University Professor Aaron Friedberg. From 2003 to 2005, he advised Vice President Dick Cheney on Asia affairs, and he joins us now via Skype. Welcome to the show, Professor Friedberg.

AARON FRIEDBERG: Thank you very much.

CHANG: So what does a call like that signal about what Trump's China policy might be? I mean, he's complained a lot about China's alleged unfair trade practices and trade manipulation. What can we glean from the fact of this call?

FRIEDBERG: I'm not sure that we can glean very much, at least not yet. It could be an indication of a decision that he's made to shift U.S. policy in a significant way and strengthen relations with Taiwan beyond what they did in the past. So we'll have to wait and see.

CHANG: What was your interpretation of the Chinese reaction? At first, you know, the Chinese foreign minister blamed Taiwan, and then the Foreign Ministry issued a formal complaint that said relevant parties in the U.S. should deal with Taiwan in a prudent manner. What do you make of all that?

FRIEDBERG: I was somewhat surprised by the Chinese reaction.

CHANG: Why?

FRIEDBERG: Well, it was quite mild. The official protest is what you would expect, but at least thus far, the Chinese reaction has been very low key.

CHANG: Low key for China or low key for the situation in particular.

FRIEDBERG: Well, both. Usually instances in which the Chinese perceive that the United States is getting closer to Taiwan or Taiwan is doing things that suggests some inclination to pull further away from the mainland have provoked pretty loud and substantial reactions. I think the Chinese have made a calculated decision not to react strongly, to wait and see how the relationship develops. I think they've - they're uncertain as to which way Mr. Trump is going to go, whether he'll adopt a truly tougher and more confrontational policy or whether they might be able to cut deals with him on various issues. And I think they're holding open that second possibility.

CHANG: Could you just give us an example in the past of maybe a louder reaction from the Chinese government when it came to Taiwan?

FRIEDBERG: Going back, for example, to 1996 during the election campaign on Taiwan when the Chinese perceived that one of the candidates was a proponent of independence, they conducted military maneuvers and launched unarmed missiles into the waters off Taiwan. The U.S. responded by sending a couple of carrier battle groups to the region, so that was quite significant.

CHANG: Well, what's next? Should we be worried at this point about U.S.-China relations under President Trump?

FRIEDBERG: I'm actually worried about two things. On the one hand, there is a possibility of heightened tensions and confrontation if the United States perceives China as doing things that are threatening and vice versa. But there is another worry, which is that the Chinese might try to reach out to Mr. Trump in various ways, suggest different kinds of bargains or deals, which might appear attractive but which could have the effect of undermining the confidence of our allies in the region.

CHANG: What do you mean deals? What type of deals?

FRIEDBERG: I think the Chinese - if you look at what Chinese commentators are saying now about Mr. Trump - what they've been saying since the election - they note that he's not been so critical of authoritarian regimes and therefore might not be so hostile to them as they've seen other American presidents to be. They point out that he's a businessman, that he likes to make deals. They note that he's emphasized the development of the U.S. economy and seems to be somewhat antagonistic towards U.S. traditional allies in Asia. And with all of that I think they believe there may be possibilities of pulling the U.S. away from its traditional allies towards China. I would expect that what they might offer would be concessions on some of the trade issues that Mr. Trump has highlighted.

CHANG: Aaron Friedberg is professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University. Thank you so much.

FRIEDBERG: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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