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Call to Trump over Taiwan may have been planned, China analysts say

SINGAPORE — Foreign policy experts interviewed by TODAY have noted that it may be too early to draw firm conclusions on whether the protocol-bending phone call between United States’ President-elect Donald Trump and Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen was a diplomatic gaffe or a careful policy recalibration by Mr Trump’s transition team on the cross-strait issue.

Call to Trump over Taiwan may have been planned, China analysts say

Mr Donald John Trump at the opening luncheon of the California state Republican Party convention in Burlingame on April 29, 2016. Photo: The New York Times

SINGAPORE — Foreign policy experts interviewed by TODAY have noted that it may be too early to draw firm conclusions on whether the protocol-bending phone call between United States’ President-elect Donald Trump and Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen was a diplomatic gaffe or a careful policy recalibration by Mr Trump’s transition team on the cross-strait issue.

But the call would not have taken place without some planning behind the scenes, noted the analysts, suggesting that US-China relations are headed into a period of unpredictability as both sides try to develop a better understanding of each other’s calculus.

Responding to a query on whether Mr Trump’s phone conversation with the Taiwanese leader was part of a broader calculated strategy, Dr Chong Ja Ian, an assistant professor at the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) department of political science, said expert opinion on this issue is divided.

“There remains some flux in the foreign policy team for the next US administration, not least because many key political appointments have yet to receive nominees,” he said.

Prof Zhang Baohui, who is with the Department of Political Science at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University, told TODAY that “we still don’t fully know the implications of Trump’s phone call with Tsai”.

“It was no doubt planned by Taiwan and some people who have access to Trump’s transition team. However, Trump’s agreeing to this phone call may not mean major changes to US-China relations,” said Prof Zhang, adding that Mr Trump’s team has said the phone call has no policy implications.

Dr Jonathan Sullivan, director of the China Policy Institute with Britain’s Nottingham University, said what Mr Trump did over the weekend, as he received a congratulatory call from Ms Tsai, stemmed more from ignorance rather than strategic calculations.

However, he said there also exists the possibility that Mr Trump was “testing China” and “tweaking its tail” to send the signal that the America under him would be different from previous administrations.

Mr John Bolton, the former US ambassador to the United Nations, said over the weekend that “honestly, I think we should shake the relationship up (with China)”.

“Nobody in Beijing gets to dictate who we talk to. It’s ridiculous to think that the phone call upsets decades of anything.”

China has complained to the US after Mr Trump flouted almost four decades of diplomatic protocol by directly speaking with the leader of Taiwan, which Beijing considers a rogue province. Beijing had urged Washington to adhere to the so-called One-China principle and “prudently” handle issues related to the self-governed island.

The President-elect has rejected criticism over his decision to take the phone call from Ms Tsai.

Analysts have highlighted that the interaction between the two leaders would not have taken place without any planning.

“The conversation was prepared. I doubt President Tsai and President-elect Trump have each other’s telephone numbers on speed dial,” said Dr Chong of NUS.

Mr J Michael Cole, a Taiwan-based senior non-resident fellow at the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute, added “there is no doubt in my mind that Mr Trump would have been advised on this (foreign policy implications) prior to the exchange by some of his close aides”.

Looking forward, Mr Trump’s propensity to make foreign policy decisions on the spur of the moment is likely to inject turbulence into ties with China.

“Trump’s way of acting introduces great uncertainty to US-China relations … China is now on guard; it will not allow the Tsai call to derail relations (with Washington), but it will not tolerate interference in core interests once Trump becomes President,” said Dr Sullivan of Nottingham University. WITH AGENCIES

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