Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Trump's Phone Call To Taiwan's Leader Risks China Tensions


One phone call on Friday was enough to cause an uproar in Washington and Beijing. It was a call between President-elect Donald Trump and Taiwan's president. It's not clear who on Trump's team arranged it. And as NPR's Jackie Northam reports, that one call could have big ramifications.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: The telephone call between Trump and Taiwan's president, Tsai Ing-wen, sent the president-elect's transition team scrambling over the weekend. The call broke four decades of U.S. policy in its relations with China and Taiwan. Trump's campaign manager Kellyanne Conway brushed off the incident on Fox News yesterday.


KELLYANNE CONWAY: President-elect received a phone call from a world leader in another country. You know, we know about one China. He knows about one China. He's routinely briefed on these matters and that's just what it is.

NORTHAM: Beijing considers Taiwan nothing more than a renegade province and refuses to recognize it. Most other countries don't officially recognize it, either. It's part of a one-China policy the U.S. has gone along with since the 1970s as part of a compromise to work with Beijing on other issues.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest says Trump's phone conversation could undermine progress made in U.S.-China relations. He says officials from the National Security Council have been in touch with their Chinese counterparts to assure them the one-China policy still stands at least while President Obama is in the White House.


JOSH EARNEST: There's no attempt and no effort and frankly no desire to make promises on behalf of the president-elect. When the president-elect assumes office, that's something that he'll do on his own.

NORTHAM: One question is whether this was a diplomatic fumble or a reflection of how Trump will pursue his presidency. Trump used Twitter to both defend his phone conversation with Taiwan's leader and then on Sunday to lash out at Beijing for its military activities in the South China Sea and its trade policies. China's initial response was tepid but it grew stronger over the weekend.

MICHAEL AUSLIN: I think now we have to think about what will China do in response?

NORTHAM: That's Michael Auslin, an Asia specialist at the American Enterprise Institute. He says there's a concern that the situation could escalate and lead to a full-blown crisis with China. Auslin says there are a number of things the Chinese could do to hurt U.S. interests.

AUSLIN: They could dramatically step up the militarization of these new islands in the South China Sea. They could walk back from the sanctions that were passed last week against North Korea. They could announce plans for a thousand missiles more pointed at Taiwan. They could quietly but dramatically increase cyberattacks against U.S. government and official targets.

NORTHAM: The Chinese could also wait and see if things just calm down, says Michael Fuchs, an Asia-Pacific specialist at the Center for American Progress. But, he says, this controversy won't go away.

MICHAEL FUCHS: The problem that the Trump administration is going to frankly have given itself on day one is that it is going to start off in the hole because they are either going to have to now defend this potentially-destabilizing move with the call to Taiwan when they come into office and double down on it, as Trump has tried to do in the last 24 hours.

NORTHAM: Or, Fuchs says, Trump's going to have to backtrack, which could make him look weak, not just here in the U.S. but in Beijing. Jackie Northam, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.