Donald Trump risks opening up a major diplomatic dispute with China before he has even been inaugurated after speaking on the telephone on Friday with Tsai Ing-wen, the president of Taiwan.
The call, confirmed by four people, is believed to be the first between a US president or president-elect and a leader of Taiwan since diplomatic relations between the two were cut in 1979.
Although it is not clear if the Trumptransition team intended the conversation to signal a broader change in US policy towards Taiwan, the call is likely to infuriate Beijing which regards the island as a renegade province.
The US has adopted the so-called “One China” policy since 1972 after the Nixon-Mao meetings and in 1978 President Jimmy Carter formally recognised Beijing as the sole government of China, with the US embassy closing in Taipei the year after.
The Trump team did not initially respond to multiple requests for comment but, after the Financial Times first published news of the call, confirmed that the president-elect had spoken with Ms Tsai and “noted the close economic, political, and security ties” between Taiwan and the United States.
How big of a deal is this?
If Trump’s outreach is widely read in Taiwan as a signal that the United States will throw its full military might behind the island in the case of a unilateral declaration of independence, Beijing could take drastic action, including putting a freeze to high-level diplomacy with Washington or cutting off relations altogether. The situation is complicated, however, by the fact that the president-elect — not the current Obama administration — took the step of reaching out to Tsai, meaning retaliation might have to wait until Trump’s inauguration in January to avoid mixed messages.