How China Is Reacting to Trump's Taiwan Call A front-page editorial of China's official People's Daily newspaper denounces Donald Trump for speaking with Taiwan's president. A look at how a single call could affect U.S.-China relations.

How China Is Reacting to Trump's Taiwan Call

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Donald Trump will not take office for another month and a half, but he's already making his presence felt in one of the most sensitive parts of the world. His phone call last week with Taiwan's president upset almost 40 years of U.S. policy in the region. It's the so-called One-China policy, which says there's only one China, and Taiwan is part of it. To get a sense of what is actually happening here, we're joined by Robert Daly in our studio. He's director of the Woodrow Wilson Center's Kissinger Institute on China and the United States. Good morning.

ROBERT DALY: Good morning.

GREENE: So a pretty sensitive subject for the Chinese leadership. They've begun putting out some - a bit of, you know, what seems like threatening language in the wake of this. I mean, should they see this as a poke in the eye here from the U.S.?

DALY: Well, Taiwan is China's core interest, and it defines a core interest as something that it is willing to go to war over.

GREENE: Wow, that's strong language.

DALY: Pretty major - and this has been made clear to us from the earliest days of the Nixon visit in which we were trying to see if we could have a relationship with China. And the One-China policy does not exactly say that Taiwan is a province of mainland China. It says that the United States recognizes that people on both sides of the Straits see only one China and that Taiwan is part of it. But it's left vague as to this One China - whether it is the People's Republic of China or whether it's more of a cultural, civilizational, historical grouping, so it was ambiguous from the beginning.

GREENE: OK, so this phone call, a lot of people suggesting this is a huge deal, maybe a change in - in U.S.-China policy from Donald Trump. The president of Taiwan has made her first comments. She was talking to a small group of American journalists in Taipei. Among them was our international editor, Will Dobson, and she says that this does not signify a shift in policy. It was a - it was a cordial phone call. Is that - do you believe that?

DALY: Yes, this is not a shift in the One-China policy. This is a shift in practices that we carry out under the policy. Our original agreements with China - the Three Communiques - never said that American leaders couldn't speak with Taiwan leaders. This is a practice that we've developed in order not to upset China's sensitivities so that we could have a foundation for a construction - a constructive relationship.

But there's always been a critique, since we broke relations with Taiwan in 1979, that we went too far in casting out a long-established partner - Taiwan or the Republic of China - that shared our values to a higher degree and that is an important trading partner. And Taiwan has since become a mature democracy. So there's long been discontent with dancing to Beijing's tune on the practices under the policy.

GREENE: So there's been momentum among people in foreign policy circles that something like this should happen, that the United States should not be casting Taiwan aside, that maybe Donald Trump should have a phone call like this.

DALY: There has been - especially but not only in the Republican Party - for decades a significant number of foreign policy professionals who wanted to do something precisely like this. It was because of concern for Taiwan that shortly after we established relations with mainland China in '79 Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which said that we should sell defensive arms to Taiwan. The 2016 Republican Party platform said that Taiwan was a loyal friend that merited more - better treatment from the United States.

GREENE: But is this dangerous? Is a phone call like this dangerous if China's upset now?

DALY: It could be dangerous. China so far has taken a wait-and-see attitude. They have tried to de-escalate in their official pronouncements by attacking not the United States but by attacking the president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, who they attack all the time anyway. This way, by not blaming the United States, they give themselves some diplomatic space.

And they are used to teaching, perhaps training, from their point of view, New American presidents. This was true with Ronald Reagan, with Bill Clinton, with George W. Bush, all of whom came in saying, we're going to be friendlier to Taiwan. They sat down. They looked at the numbers, at the reasons we needed to cooperate as well as compete with China, and they started to go...

GREENE: Oh, so this is Donald Trump maybe giving the Chinese a window to do what they would have done anyway - to try and test the new president.

DALY: Well, I doubt that it's that thought out. As I said, there are advisers to President Trump...

GREENE: President-elect Trump, yeah.

DALY: ...Who very much wants to see a shift toward Taiwan, who want a recognition that Beijing is now a strategic and ideological competitor who has to be countered.

GREENE: Which makes it sound like this could signal a change in policy with China coming. What would that...

DALY: It is a possibility.

GREENE: What would that change look like, and would it be very different from, say, what Hillary Clinton would have done as president? Is there disagreement over what the U.S. should do with China?

DALY: Well, the Chinese were expecting a hard-line Clinton - a harder-line Clinton presidency if she came in. And we do know that the relationship as a whole has shifted toward ever greater distrust and strategic competition. But we also cooperate with each other, very importantly, on climate change. We need China to work with us on North Korea. China played an important role in the Iran nuclear agreement. They are our number-one trading partner.

GREENE: Does that make this relationship unique - I mean, such a big, powerful country that's a competitor but also so important in being a partner in some ways?

DALY: Neither the United States nor China has ever been in this situation where our number-one country of long-term strategic concern - China's not an acute security threat to the United States, but it's the only country that could replace America as the preeminent nation. It's also a very important competitor, a cooperating partner and trade - trading country.

GREENE: OK, so new waters in some ways for both countries, it sounds like. Robert Daly is director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Woodrow Wilson Center here in Washington, D.C. Thanks for coming in.

DALY: Thank you.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.