Conversation with Tsai Ing-wen thought to be first between US and Taiwanese leaders since ties cut in 1979 at China’s behest
China has lodged “solemn representations” with the US over a call between the president-elect, Donald Trump, and Taiwan’s leader, Tsai Ing-wen.
Trump looked to have sparked a potentially damaging diplomatic row with Beijing on Friday after speaking to the Taiwanese president on the telephone.
The US closed its embassy in Taiwan – a democratically ruled island which Beijing regards as a breakaway province – in the late 1970s after the historic rapprochement between Beijing and Washington that stemmed from Richard Nixon’s 1972 trip to China.
Since then the US has adhered to the “One China” principle, which officially considers the independently governed island to be part of the same single Chinese nation as the mainland.
Geng Shuang, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, said in a statement on Saturday: “It must be pointed out that there is only one China in the world and Taiwan is an inseparable part of Chinese territory. The government of the People’s Republic of China is the sole legitimate government representing China.”
Geng added: “This is a fact that is generally recognised by the international community.”
The statement did not describe the details of China’s complaint to the US, or say with whom it had been lodged.
It said China urged “the relevant US side” – implying Trump’s incoming administration – to handle Taiwan-related issues “cautiously and properly” to avoid “unnecessary interference” in the China-US relationship.
China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, sought to play down the importance of the conversation, dismissing it as a “petty action”.
The Global Times, a government-controlled tabloid which sometimes echoes official views, took a harder line, using an editorial to warn Trump that he should think twice before destroying US-China relations by further engaging with Taiwan’s government.
“If Trump wants to overstep the One China principle, he will destroy Sino-US ties,” the newspaper said. “That means the current pattern between Beijing and Washington, as well as international order, will be overturned. We believe this is not what Trump wants.”
The nationalist newspaper urged Taipei not to cross Beijing.
“If the Taiwan government ever does anything to break the status quo, it must pay the price. Beijing should better communicate with Trump’s team and be prepared to respond to Trump’s moves after he assumes office,” it said.
In a more diplomatically worded article, Xinhua, China’s official news agency, urged Trump not to damage the “stability and maturity” of US-China relations.
“China and the United States are not destined rivals. They can be partners for peace if they do not veer off this course,” it said.
The Global Times blamed the fact that Trump “was not familiar with foreign relations” for his decision to hold a conversation with Tsai.
They include Stephen Yates, a former aide to Dick Cheney, who defended Trump’s telephone conversation on Twitter, writing: “It’s great to have a leader willing to ignore those who say he cannot take a simple call from another democratically elected leader.
Trump’s transition team said Tsai, who became Taiwan’s first female presidentin January, had congratulated the billionaire tycoon on his recent victory.
“During the discussion they noted the close economic, political and security ties that exist between Taiwan and the United States,” a statement said. “President-elect Trump also congratulated President Tsai on becoming president of Taiwan earlier this year.”
China experts said Beijing would have been enraged by the unexpected move.
“I would imagine Xi Jinping would be angry,” said Bill Bishop, a veteran China watcher who runs the Sinocism newsletter from Washington DC. “This is going to make real waves in Beijing. I think we will see quite the reaction from Beijing … this will put relations from day one into a very difficult place.”
Evan Medeiros, the Asia director at the White House national security council, told the Financial Times: “The Chinese leadership will see this as a highly provocative action, of historic proportions.
“Regardless if it was deliberate or accidental, this phone call will fundamentally change China’s perceptions of Trump’s strategic intentions for the negative. With this kind of move, Trump is setting a foundation of enduring mistrust and strategic competition for US-China relations.”
In an indication that Trump’s team had grasped the potential damage caused to relations with Beijing, the US president-elect later tweeted:
However, even those 17 words threatened to further inflame the situation. The traditional US diplomatic formulation for referring to Taiwan’s leader – one specifically designed not to upset Beijing – is “the president on Taiwan”.
In a second tweet addressing criticism of the call, Trump wrote:
Bishop said it was hard to know whether the call was the result of a deliberate policy move by Trump or merely an intervention by a member of his staff who was friendly towards Tsai and Taipei.
Citing anonymous sources, the agency said on Saturday that Edwin Feulner, the founder of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, was a “crucial figure” in setting up communication channels between the parties.
Trump’s adviser Peter Navarro, an economics professor, travelled to Taiwan earlier this year at the invitation of its foreign ministry.
In a recent article for Foreign Policy magazine, Navarro said Barack Obama’s treatment of Taiwan had been “egregious”, adding: “This beacon of democracy in Asia is perhaps the most militarily vulnerable US partner anywhere in the world.”