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Pence downplays significance of Trump's call with Taiwan president

Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence
Ty Wright | Getty Images
Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence

President-elect Donald Trump's phone conversation with Taiwan's president was not intended to show a shift in U.S. policy on China, Vice President-elect Mike Pence said on Sunday, describing the chat as a "courtesy" call.

Trump's call with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen on Friday raised Chinese hackles because it was the first by a U.S. president-elect or president with a Taiwanese leader since President Jimmy Carter switched diplomatic recognition to China from Taiwan in 1979, acknowledging Taiwan as part of "one China."

China blamed Taiwan for the call, but also lodged a diplomatic protest with the United States on Saturday, saying the "one China" policy was the bedrock of relations between China and the United States.

The diplomatic contretemps was one of several recently for the Republican president-elect, a real estate magnate who has never held public office and has no foreign affairs or military experience. Trump, who takes office on Jan. 20, is still considering whom to name as his secretary of state.

Pence called the uproar over the call with "democratically elected" Tsai a "tempest in a teapot." He blamed the media for the controversy, saying the call was similar in nature to one between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping after the Nov. 8 election.

"I think I would just say to our counterparts in China that this was a moment of courtesy. The president-elect talked to President Xi two weeks ago in the same manner. It was not a discussion about policy," Pence said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

China's Foreign Ministry said on Saturday it had lodged "stern representations" with what it called the "relevant U.S. side," urging caution on the issue.

Pence said he was not aware of any contact between the Trump transition team and the Chinese government since Friday and did not expect Trump's team to reach out this week to ease tensions with Beijing.

Trump, who vowed during his campaign he would label China a currency manipulator, did not appear to be taking a conciliatory approach on Sunday.

"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!" Trump said on Twitter.

Trump and Pence have had more than 50 phone calls with foreign leaders so far. Pence said he spoke with Jordan's King Abdullah on Saturday.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Sunday the Trump transition team had yet to contact the State Department for information and recommendations ahead of calls with foreign leaders.

"I do think there's a value, obviously on having at least the recommendations, whether you choose to follow them or not is a different issue," Kerry told a think-tank conference.

Trump, known for his unconventional approach to politics, has raised eyebrows with his initial forays into the complex web of international diplomacy as president-elect.

He has been praised by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has sparred with U.S. Democratic President Barack Obama over Russian actions in Ukraine and Syria. Putin said in an interview on Sunday that Trump was a "clever man."

Last week, Trump offered to help Pakistan solve its problems and praised Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif as a "terrific guy" during a phone conversation, the Pakistani leader's office said.

Asked on Sunday whether that meant Trump wanted to mediate the long-running border dispute between Pakistan and India, Pence acknowledged recent violence in the Kashmir region and said Trump wanted "continued U.S. engagement" with both sides.

Trump will show "energetic leadership" in engaging with foreign nations and "look for ways that he can bring those extraordinary deal-making skills to bear on lessening tensions and solving problems in the world," Pence told NBC.

Trump also spoke last week with Philippines leader Rodrigo Duterte, who said Trump showed understanding about a deadly crackdown on drug dealers. Duterte told Obama earlier this year to "go to hell" after Obama expressed concerns about possible human rights abuses in Duterte's war on drugs.

Pence also said Trump may consider new candidates for secretary of state, America's top diplomat, after having narrowed the field last week to four people: Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee; Rudy Giuliani, former mayor of New York; U.S. Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; and retired general and former CIA Director David Petraeus.

"We've been winnowing the list, but it might grow a little bit," Pence said on NBC.

Trump met on Friday with John Bolton, ambassador to the United States under Republican President George W. Bush.

Trump will have additional interviews with new candidates for secretary of state in the coming week, Kellyanne Conway, Trump's senior adviser who managed his campaign, told reporters at Trump Tower on Sunday.

Among the new names: Jon Huntsman, a former ambassador to China and ex-Utah governor, Rex Tillerson, the chief executive of ExxonMobil, and retired Admiral James Stavridis, a source familiar with the situation told Reuters.

An Exxon spokesman declined comment. Representatives for Huntsman and Stavridis could not be immediately reached for comment on Sunday.

Stavridis, dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University near Boston and a former supreme allied commander of NATO, had been vetted to be the running mate of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

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