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(LEAD) (News Focus) Trump's call with Taiwan's leader sparks concern about cooperation with China over N.K.

2016/12/05 09:50

(ATTN: UPDATES in paras 7-8 with Trump criticizing China over trade, currency practices; ADDS comments from Victor Cha in last 2 paras)

By Chang Jae-soon

WASHINGTON, Dec. 4 (Yonhap) -- U.S. President-elect Donald Trump's acceptance of a phone call from Taiwan's president is rattling the foreign policy community in the U.S., with experts voicing concerns that efforts to denuclearize North Korea could take the burnt of frayed ties between the two superpowers.

Trump spoke by phone with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen on Friday, breaking the decades-long diplomatic tradition that the U.S. has kept under its "One China" policy since severing ties with Taiwan and normalizing relations with Beijing.

China considers Taiwan a renegade province that must be unified with the mainland and rails against any support for Taiwan's independence or the notion that the island is not part of the country. Despite the absence of formal diplomatic ties, the U.S. has maintained friendly relations with Taiwan.

"The President of Taiwan CALLED ME today to wish me congratulations on winning the Presidency. Thank you!" Trump said in a Twitter posting, setting off criticism and concern the conversation overturned decades of diplomatic protocol and could endanger relations with Beijing.

Trump did not back down and posted another Twitter message about an hour later, saying, "Interesting how the U.S. sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call."


China has lodged a protest with the U.S. over the call, but the reaction was restrained, with its foreign ministry issuing a statement that "there is only one China in the world and Taiwan is an inseparable part of Chinese territory."

   In a further display of negative views on China on Sunday, Trump lashed out at Beijing for its trade and currency practices.

"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!" Trump said in a Twitter post.

Foreign policy experts said it is unclear whether the call signals a policy shift or simply a misstep by Trump, who lacks foreign policy experience. But if it means a policy shift, relations between the U.S. and China would suffer a lot, they said.

"It is too early to know what next steps might be taken by Trump, Tsai or Xi. What is already evident, however, is that while Beijing's reaction has been quite restrained so far, any serious efforts to 'upgrade' the nature of U.S.-Taiwan relations would have profound consequences for U.S.-PRC relations," Alan Romberg, a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center, told Yonhap News Agency.

"Washington and Beijing need each other today far more than they did at the time of normalization of relations in the 1970s. But the fundamental sensitivity of questions about Taiwan's sovereignty remain, and while he might be flexible in practice, no PRC leader can afford to compromise on the principles involved," he said.

Even though North Korea's nuclear program is something that touches on China's strategic interests, any sense that the U.S. is reneging on the essential terms of normalization of relations would have "a serious effect on whether and how Beijing might coordinate with the U.S." in pursuing the North's denuclearization, Romberg said.

"Already we hear Chinese interlocutors asking why the mainland should cooperate with the U.S. on North Korea policy if Washington won't cooperate on Taiwan," he said.

China appears to have given such a restrained response, as it was able to take advantage of the fact that Trump is not yet in office, Romberg said. President Xi Jinping does not want to unnecessarily sour relations with the U.S., but that could change instantly, he warned.

"If Trump's willingness to accept the call from President Tsai Ing-wen is the precursor of other steps to introduce greater 'officiality' into Taipei-Washington ties once he takes office, PRC restraint will quickly evaporate, with potentially substantial consequences for both the United States and Taiwan," Romberg said.

"One presumes that Beijing will also suffer if things move in a negative direction. But while the mainland can be flexible in practice when it suits its interests, from a political perspective alone the leadership cannot afford to compromise on the 'principled' issue of sovereignty," he said.

Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, also told Yonhap that the call was not an "impulsive action," but "carefully orchestrated by several neo-conservative advisors to the transition team."

   "It was a mistake, as it can only complicate an already volatile U.S.-China relationship," he said. "Such moves can only harm efforts at U.S.-China cooperation, possible vis-a-vis North Korea, but more broadly on a range of international issues from Iran, Syria, Afghanistan and on some global issues."

   China appears to have given a mild reaction as Trump has not taken office yet, he said.

Scott Snyder, a senior analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, also said the call could have bad effects on cooperation between the two countries over North Korea.

"Trump's call appears to have been planned; China's reaction has been cautious. We don't yet know what this means for the Trump administration's policy toward Asia. The call could have an impact on U.S.-PRC coordination toward North Korea, but it is too early to say definitively what type of impact it may have," he said.

U.S. media was awash with stories analyzing what the call means.

Pointing out that the call came only two days after the U.N. Security Council adopted new sanctions on North Korea with Chinese cooperation, the Wall Street Journal said Trump's call could jeopardize cooperation on efforts to end the North's nuclear program.

"You can't expect China to make sacrifices on North Korea while the U.S. meddles with Chinese core interests in Taiwan," Wang Sheng, a professor at China's Jilin University who studies China-North Korea relations, was quoted by the paper as saying.

Politico reported that Trump has surrounded himself with advocates of a tilt away from Beijing, including former U.N. ambassador John Bolton, considered a candidate for secretary of state. Bolton visited Trump Tower on Friday when the call took place, the report said.

The report also cited Bolton as writing in the Wall Street Journal in January that the U.S. should play "the Taiwan card" to pressure mainland China to back off its increasingly aggressive moves in the Pacific region, including inviting Taiwan's president to visit the U.S.

Vice President-elect Mike Pence cautioned against reading too much into the phone call, saying on ABC News, "That was nothing more than taking a courtesy call of congratulations from the democratically elected leader of Taiwan."

   Victor Cha, a Georgetown University professor and Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the phone call could be nothing more than "bumps in the road" in an early stage of a new administration.

"I don't think it is signaling a major change in the U.S. One China policy. President George W. Bush made comments early in his presidency about defending an ally in Taiwan but this did not end up signaling a change in policy," Cha said. "These are part of the bumps in the road early on in any administration."