Donald Trump’s aides have been boasting, with some justice, that his transition is moving faster than most of his predecessors’ did. Trump has named almost half his Cabinet; in 2008, President Obama didn’t get that done until mid-December.
Now Trump has set a speed record he never intended: He appears to have touched off his first diplomatic crisis seven weeks before he’s scheduled to take office.
On Friday, Trump spoke on the telephone with Taiwan’s president, something no U.S. president or president-elect has done since 1979.
That’s a big problem, because ever since the Jimmy Carter administration the United States has officially recognized the People’s Republic of China — the very large country with its capital in Beijing — as the only fully legal government of China.
Not only that, the Trump transition issued a cheerful official statement about the phone call, lauding “the close economic, political, and security ties … between Taiwan and the United States. President-elect Trump also congratulated President Tsai on becoming President of Taiwan earlier this year.”
All of that was taboo under normal U.S. diplomatic practice – and virtually certain to enrage China. (Ari Fleischer, a White House press secretary under George W. Bush, noted on Twitter that he wasn’t even allowed to refer to the government “of” Taiwan; he had to call it the government “on” Taiwan.) And China is, of course, a considerably more important country to the United States – economically, politically and militarily – than Taiwan.
It wasn’t clear how the telephone call came about. It’s possible that President Tsai Ing-wen just got lucky, and that Trump and his staff made a rookie mistake.
"The President of Taiwan CALLED ME," Trump tweeted afterward, as if to explain. "Interesting how the U.S. sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call.”
But the Taipei Times reported that the call was "arranged by [Trump’s] Taiwan-friendly campaign staff after his aides briefed him on issues regarding Taiwan.”
Did Trump deliberately touch off a diplomatic tiff with China, the biggest power in Asia, even before settling on a secretary of State?
This wasn’t even the first time Trump’s impulsive style of diplomacy led to controversy.
On Wednesday, Trump took a call from Pakistani Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif and – according to a Pakistani government summary that appeared to be written in verbatim Trumpspeak – lavished praise on Sharif.
“You are a terrific guy,” Trump said, according to the Pakistani summary. “You are doing amazing work which is visible in every way…. Your country is amazing with tremendous opportunities.”
The problem? U.S. relations with Sharif's government have been prickly, not “terrific.” And any sudden warming with Pakistan would worry a closer U.S. ally – Pakistan’s archrival, neighboring India.
That misstep can probably be papered over, especially since Trump has also said he wants to be “best friends” with India. (He also said he’s a “big fan of Hindu.”) But the call to Taiwan is a serious problem. China’s communist government is sensitive about its recognition as a major regional power – and hypersensitive about anything regarding Taiwan. Don’t expect this one to go away easily.
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