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Trump, Taiwan and Tweets: The Future of U.S.-China Relations

This combination of two photos shows U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, left, and Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen. China lodged a complaint with the U.S. after Mr. Trump spoke with Ms. Tsai.

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen. (Associated Press)

After U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s phone call on Friday with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, we may have more insight into how a President Trump will approach U.S.-China foreign relations. The call marked the first time and American president or president-elect has publicly spoken to Taiwan’s leader since the U.S. ended their formal diplomatic relationship in 1979. Outside of the formalities of a congratulatory call, little has been said of what else was discussed during their brief 10-minute call.

Immediately afterward, Beijing, which views Taiwan as a renegade province, sought to downplay the significance of the call. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi dismissing it as a “little trick pulled off by Taiwan.” An editorial in the state-owned China Daily blamed the call on the “inexperience” and “lack of proper understanding” of the Trump transition team, saying there was no reason to “over-interpret” the congratulatory call. 

However, back in Washington, some argued the call was “an intentionally provocative move.” And in New York, the President-elect, being a huge user of media, could not help but respond, tweeting out the following comments Sunday night in response to Beijing’s criticism:

“Did China ask us if it was OK to devalue their currency (making it hard for our companies to compete), heavily tax our products going into…their country (the U.S. doesn’t tax them) or to build a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea? I don’t think so!”

His sharp response echoes some of his earlier commentary on U.S.-China relations, when he spoke out during an interview with the New York Times in April 2016, saying: “We have rebuilt China, and yet they will go in the South China Sea and build a military fortress the likes of which perhaps the world has not seen,” and “Amazing, actually. They do that, and they do that at will because they have no respect for our president and they have no respect for our country.”

Despite the diplomatic downsizing by Beijing of the unprecedented call, China’s leadership is surely fretting over the long-term consequences of a Trump presidency on Sino-U.S. ties and cross-Strait relations. And to the extent its population of nationalistic and sensitive citizens learns of the call, Beijing will have to temper their outrage.

After the election of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party Tsai as president earlier this year, Beijing formally cut communication with Taiwan and actively discouraged mainland Chinese from visiting the island. Tensions on the island have intensified following Beijing’s passage in 2005 of a law authorizing attack to prevent secession. We can expect Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen will face some fallout from Beijing over the call, but will likely seek to downplay the call.

As for the U.S., these latest tweets seem to suggest the next President has his own strong views, and will quickly make those public. His selection for Secretary of Defense, General James “Mad Dog” Mattis will certainly voice his own views, as will his final choice for secretary of state, while his family members may also weigh in.

Yet for all the aggressive rhetoric, disbelief and rancor surrounding Trump’s call with Taipei, no one really knows how a Trump administration will deal with China. Actions during his presidency will speak louder than words—the building of a 350-ship navy or increased arms sales to Taiwan would reveal volumes more than a call and a few tweets.



Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, Asia Times, EurasiaNet, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review, the South China Morning Post, and the Global Times. He was previously employed in lending and advisory roles at Shell Capital, ABB Structured Finance, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He earned his Masters of Business Administration in International Business from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelor of Science in Finance at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, four years in Rio de Janeiro, and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Twitter@ForeignDevil666