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Why China may give a pass to Trump over Taiwan — this time

Tsai Ing-wen
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Tsai Ing-wen

President-elect Donald Trump on Friday broke with decades of U.S. diplomatic tradition in speaking with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, a seemingly innocuous call that started the relationship between two of the world's greatest powers on the wrong foot.

Trump's call, and the ensuing debate over its meaning, created an initial furor on both sides of the Pacific. Tsai's Democratic Progressive Party makes Beijing uncomfortable because of its official stance that Taiwan is independent and sovereign, rather than an extension of mainland China—the government's position that underpins the "One China" policy.

Yet foreign policy experts think the fallout on U.S.-Sino relations will be limited. Beijing is likely to attribute the move to inexperience — even as elements of the U.S.-Taiwan call were unorthodox in more ways than one.

"The call by itself and the potential for shift in U.S. policy to strengthen ties in Taiwan would create enormous anxiety in Beijing regardless of who is president," Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, told CNBC.

"But with Tsai Ing-wen, a president seen as pro-independent and one that has not accepted the one China principle makes it even more alarming," she added.

As expected, the Chinese government was not happy with the news. China's Foreign Ministry issued a formal statement on the conversation, saying it had lodged "a solemn representation to the United States" over the call and echoing the country's Anti-Secession Law, "there is only one China in the world, and Taiwan is an inalienable part of China."

This initial reaction from Beijing seemed constructive, noted Barry Pavel, senior vice president and director of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. He said that China seems to be saying that it understands that Trump's team "made a mistake and we're going to let it slide."

Lindsey Ford, director of Asian security at the Asia Society Policy Institute, agreed that Beijing seems to be taking a wait and see approach.

"People are going to give a bit of latitude to a new administration, but that will only last for so long," she cautioned.

"On things like our U.S.-China policy and sovereignty that are extremely sensitive issues, it would be a tremendous concern were we to suddenly change our position on something like this that has been a fundamental basic element of how we approach China for many, many years," Ford added.

'Not the way you want to start'

President-elect Donald Trump and Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen.
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President-elect Donald Trump and Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen.
"That's just lack of policy experience… but it puts him in a very tough place with Beijing." -Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group

Following the news that Trump had spoken with Tsai, Ned Price, spokesman for the White House national security council said, "There is no change to our longstanding policy on cross-Strait issues."

"We remain firmly committed to our 'one China' policy based on the three Joint Communiques and the Taiwan Relations Act. Our fundamental interest is in peaceful and stable cross-Strait relations," Price said in a statement.

Ian Bremmer, president of the global intelligence firm Eurasia Group, said that the call was "not the way you want to start" a diplomatic relationship with China.

"Trump has been accepting calls of congratulations from everybody, without the focus on usual protocol and absence of regular intelligence briefs," Bremmer explained in an email to CNBC.

"He knows there's a problem between China and Taiwan, but unlikely thought taking a call would cause an international incident. That's just lack of policy experience… but it puts him in a very tough place with Beijing."


Threatening 'one China'

The DPP believes that the only way Taiwan's sovereignty could be changed is if the people voted on a referendum for that change. Beijing may be concerned that the call with Trump has emboldened Tsai to pursue Taiwan independence more actively, even if, so far, there hasn't been indication that she would do so.

Beijing "will fear this could be interpreted in Taiwan as a signal from the U.S. that the U.S. might support a pro-independence agenda," Glaser said.

Bremmer noted that had Taiwan's president been a politician from the Mainland-friendly Kuomintang Party, they "probably wouldn't have made the call, fearing potential Beijing fallout."

Damage to international relations?

Yet experts who spoke to CNBC agreed that the incident highlighted the fact that Trump's brand of improvisation, which served him well during the election, may not translate on the international stage.

Diplomatic interactions are normally tightly scripted because of how much word choice and optics matters, Asia Society's Ford said. Eurasia Group's Bremmer said that what this incident shows is that the president-elect "clearly needs a team of foreign policy professionals around him immediately."

He added: "You improvise around this stuff and U.S. national interests will be damaged."

Pavel said that it's fortunate that China seems to have given Trump a pass this time.

"The worst thing is if [China] took it as completely deliberate. It'd be the beginning of a downward spiral in the most important bilateral relationship in the world," he said.

CSIS' Glaser agreed. "This will be a wake up call for President-elect Trump about the importance of understanding the intricacies of foreign policy. I hope he draws some lessons from it."

— NBC News contributed to this report.

Correction: This story was revised to correct in headlines that the call was made by Taiwan's president.