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China Reacts To Donald Trump's Call With Taiwan

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

President-elect Trump held a phone conversation yesterday with Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan, breaking nearly four decades of diplomatic practice. NPR's Rob Schmitz joins us from Shanghai. Rob, thanks so much for being with us.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: So what's the big deal? It's a phone call.

SCHMITZ: (Laughter) And, you know, ever since, you know, the United States normalized relations with China, you know, in the 1970s starting with Nixon, you know, it was agreed that the U.S. would cease diplomatic relations with Taiwan, a country that China still considers a breakaway province. And this is what's known as the one-China policy. And it's been a cornerstone of China-U.S. relations ever since.

In fact, it's believed that no U.S. president has spoken to a Taiwanese president since 1979. So for a president-elect of the United States to speak directly to the president of Taiwan appears to be unprecedented and is breaking with decades of diplomatic protocol.

SIMON: But is this one of these stories that authorities get upset about but it's hard to explain to, you know, to regular people listening to it? I mean, the United States does a lot of business with Taiwan - much more with China. China does a lot of business with Taiwan. So what's their response been like?

SCHMITZ: Well, you know, China has lodged a formal complaint with the U.S. over this incident. And China's foreign minister, Wang Yi, seemed to blame Taiwan for manipulating Trump. He labeled the phone call Taiwan's little trick. China's Foreign Ministry urged the U.S. to abide by the one-China policy and to use caution when dealing with Taiwan.

You know, the state media here has so far avoided this story except for a very strongly worded op-ed in the Global Times, which is a popular state newspaper. The article pointed out that Trump is not familiar with foreign relations, that he plays by his own rules and that he might be trying to test China. It went on to warn the ruling party of Taiwan that if it continued to break the diplomatic status quo between the U.S. and China that it would pay the price and that China would punish Taiwan militarily.

SIMON: Do we know how all of this started, who phoned where, what - did somebody pass along a note saying call her or did the - do we know anything about who placed that phone call?

SCHMITZ: There's a little bit of a confusion about this. Trump used his communication tool of choice, which is Twitter, to post a tweet that said, (reading) the president of Taiwan called me.

You know, he wrote that in all caps. This tweet was then followed by a statement from Taiwan's government that contradicted what Trump had just tweeted, saying that the call between the two leaders was set up by both sides in advance. Soon after that, Trump seemed to dig himself an even bigger diplomatic hole by tweeting (reading) interesting how the U.S. sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment, but I should not accept a congratulatory call.

So from his Twitter posts, it does seem like he's genuinely flummoxed about why his conversation with Taiwan's president was seen as such a big deal. On the other hand, though, it's certainly possible that this could have been a calculated signal that Trump's team of advisers was sending to China's leadership. It's important to mention here that Trump's advisers on China are a very hawkish group. They've written, in the past, about the importance of Taiwan. And it's likely they would approve of testing China's leadership like this.

SIMON: Thanks very much, NPR's Rob Schmitz.

SCHMITZ: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.