Trump Call Sets Off
War of Words With China

Tweets on China's regional military buildup, currency manipulation prompt harsh Beijing response

Donald Trump,Tsai Ing-wen

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen / AP

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President-elect Donald Trump set off a war of words with China less than two months before taking office as Chinese state media on Monday warned of future Beijing action in anticipation of tougher U.S. policies.

Trump signaled a major shift in U.S. policy toward Taiwan, viewed by Beijing as a renegade province, on Friday by speaking by telephone with Taiwan's president, Tsai Ing-wen. It was the first time a senior American leader had conducted a direct conversation with a Taiwanese leader since the United States broke diplomatic ties in shifting recognition to mainland China in 1979.

Beijing reacted immediately, lodging a diplomatic protest against what the Foreign Ministry stated was a violation of the policy of recognizing one China.

"The government of the People's Republic of China is the only legitimate government representing China," the ministry said in a statement.

The phone call appears to have caught Chinese leaders' off guard. Some China experts were warning that Beijing would attempt some type of confrontational test of Trump early in his administration.

Trump preempted any provocation in calling the pro-independence leader of Taiwan before he takes office Jan. 20.

A statement from the Trump transition team on the 10-minute call said the two leaders "noted 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," the statement said.

However, Trump's subsequent statements on Twitter drew more attention from Beijing.

On Sunday, in response to media criticism of the Taiwan outreach, Trump said in two tweets: "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!"

Beijing has been building new islands for the past several years, and has begun placing military forces on them in a bid to control the strategic waterway.

Pacific Command commander Adm. Harry Harris for several months earlier this year was outspoken in criticizing Chinese militarization in the South China Sea. But the four-star admiral was told by White House National Security Adviser Susan Rice to back off making similar statements several months ago, reflecting Obama administration policies of seeking closer engagement with America's enemies.

On currency, a Trump transition source told the Washington Free Beacon the incoming administration plans to declare China a currency manipulator once in power. The declaration likely will upset the lucrative trade relations between the two economic powers.

The People's Daily, the official newspaper of the ruling Communist Party of China, took on Trump in a commentary published Monday for what the article called "petty moves."

"The phone call was despicable in nature," the People's Daily said, adding "it remains a mystery whether China-U.S. relations will continue smoothly under Trump’s presidency."

China insists Taiwan's status as a province of China is a "core issue" and among the most important and sensitive issues in U.S.-China relations.

"Trump’s unscrupulous actions have set off alarms for the development of bilateral ties. China will surely be on guard," the daily stated.

The Party newspaper also said that Trump's post-call tweets indicate the president-elect did not realize the serious consequences of the call.

The commentary said Trump's actions will damage trust and cooperation.

Another commentary published in the People's Daily and in the nationalistic newspaper Global Times issued ominous warnings of a Chinese response.

"China will never bow to U.S. pressure," stated the commentary by columnist Curtis Stone, a translator for official Chinese state media.

"International relations 101: China is an independent, sovereign state with its own national interests. As a sovereign state, China sets its own policy and can retaliate if necessary."

On Sunday, Vice President-elect Mike Pence dismissed criticism of Trump for the call to the Taiwan president as "a little bit of a tempest in a teapot."

"The conversation that happened this week with the president of Taiwan was a courtesy call," Pence said on "Meet the Press. "She reached out to the president-elect and he took the call from the democratically elected leader of Taiwan."

Pressed to explain the motivation behind the apparent policy shift, Pence said: "I think you are going to see in a president Donald Trump a willingness to engage the world but engage the world on America's terms."

Incoming White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus suggested the president-elect is adopting a new international affairs strategy with the call to Taiwan.

"This is not a massive deviation of our policy," Priebus said on CBS' Face the Nation. "But President Trump has made it clear that he's going to work with China, PRC, to make sure that we have a better deal, that we have better trade agreements, and that we do a better job in protecting the American worker. And he's going to continue to do it."

On ABC's This Week, Pence insisted the call to Tsai was a "courtesy call."

"It's a little mystifying to me that President Obama can reach out to a murdering dictator in Cuba in the last year and be hailed as a hero for doing it and President-elect Donald Trump takes a courtesy call from a democratically elected leader in Taiwan and it's become something of a controversy, because I think the American people appreciate the fact that our president-elect is taking calls from and reaching out to the world and preparing on day one to lead America on the world stage," Pence said.

Asked if China will be labeled a currency manipulator, Pence did not answer directly but noted that Trump has said during the presidential campaign that "a lot is going to change in America's economic policies."

The Chinese Defense Ministry as of Monday was silent on Trump's Taiwan remarks.

A day before the Trump-Tsai phone call, Defense Ministry spokesman Sr. Col. Yang Yujun, said China hoped to continue the somewhat rocky U.S.-China military exchange relationship under the new Trump administration.

"We have to admit that the bilateral military relations between the two countries still face some deep-rooted contradictions and obstacles," Yang said at a press briefing "The Chinese side is willing to work with the defense establishments of the next U.S. administration, to push for the healthy and steady development of the bilateral military relations."

The phone call has highlighted the diplomatic balancing act on Taiwan.

Under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, the United States is obligated to defend Taiwan from a mainland attack. The United States also supplies defensive arms to Taiwan, although arms transfers in recent years have been limited.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters on Monday that senior National Security Council officials contacted their Chinese counterparts to reiterate U.S. commitment to the so-called one-China policy.

The phone call to Taiwan's leader also reflects the views of two Trump advisers who last month who called for closer ties to America's Asian allies, including Taiwan.

"The Obama administration’s treatment of Taiwan has been equally egregious," Alexander Gray and Peter Navarro stated. "This beacon of democracy in Asia is perhaps the most militarily vulnerable U.S. partner anywhere in the world."

As the military balance across the 100-mile Taiwan Strait has shifted in Beijing's favor in recently years, Taiwan was repeatedly been denied the kind of arms needed to deter Beijing, they stated.

In Taipei, a statement from the president's office said the phone call involved Tsai offering congratulations to Trump and a discussion of economic and defense issues.

"Commenting on future Taiwan-U.S. relations, President Tsai expressed hope that the two sides can enhance bilateral interactions and liaison so as to build a closer cooperative relationship," the statement said.

China analysts said the Trump phone call likely will signal a new direction for U.S. security policy in Asia, despite criticism from some foreign policy experts.

Michael Pillsbury, director of Chinese strategy at the Hudson Institute said he admires Trump's writing and campaign speeches about how to negotiate with China, including the need to appear "unpredictable" to the Chinese and not revealing one's strategy in advance.

"Mr. Trump is already putting into practice his years of experience and writing about how to negotiate with the Chinese. He does not want them to keep outsmarting us," Pillsbury said.

John Tkacik, a former State Department China affairs official, said the new Trump initiative on China is a welcome break with previous policies.

"The media figures and academics screaming loudest against the president-elect’s new, and I have to say, refreshing attitude on China are the same ones who have so wisely suggested ‘engagement' and ‘concessions' and ‘forthright disagreements' with China for 25 years but have cautioned against any retaliation," said Tkacik.

"As a former Alaska governor might ask, ‘How's that ‘Chinese engagement,' and ‘hopey-changey' thing been workin' out for ya?" Tkacik added.

The former official said U.S.-China policy has not worked well for U.S. interests.

"We have to admit that the past 25 years of Washington's timorous China policy has destroyed America’s industry, manufacturing, collapsed our cyber security, cost us jobs, undermined our agriculture, oh, and has also given us a nuclear North Korea and Pakistan and a soon-to-be nuclear Iran," he said.