With a 10-minute phone call and two tweets, Donald Trump inspired banner headlines and renewed hopes across Taiwan for a stronger partnership with the United States, while also inflaming the complex relationships between the U.S., mainland China, and the self-governing island China regards as a renegade province.
Whether the U.S. president-elect meant to jump into the generational fight between China and Taiwan remains an open question. But by speaking to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, Trump upended four decades of American foreign policy and engaged China directly on the issue of Taiwan, which Beijing has threatened to reclaim by force if necessary. No American president or president-elect has publicly spoken to Taiwan's leader since the U.S. ended their formal diplomatic relationship in 1979.
Four of his words drew particular attention in Taiwanese newspapers: Trump's reference, in a follow-up tweet, to Tsai being "the President of Taiwan."
The phrase is far from benign for China, which regards any reference to a Taiwanese president as an unacceptable acknowledgement of Taiwan's statehood. Official Chinese pronouncements typically refer to the Taiwanese president as "the Taiwan regional leader."
Chinese leaders have indicated they dislike Tsai, who was elected in January from a pro-Taiwan independence party and became the island's first female president. An editorial from the state-run China Daily newspaper admonished Tsai and said the call would "bring nothing substantial but illusionary pride."
As for Trump, the newspaper said the incident "came as a striking move," but was not as important as "it seems to be."
Taiwanese are generally considered to support independence or the status quo, in which China and Taiwan maintain robust social and economic exchanges while the island retains its democracy and de facto independence, over unification with China. Chinese President Xi Jinping, however, has warned that the issue of unification cannot be put off indefinitely.
Yang Chih-kai, a 22-year-old university student at Taiwan's Tamkang University, said Saturday that the call raised Taiwanese hopes for a stronger relationship with the United States.
"People will think that the U.S. will keep on helping Taiwan protect itself against China's threat," Yang said.
Chen Chun-hao, a 43-year-old designer, said Trump might "bring more help" to Taiwan now that both sides had opened a dialogue.
"I believe that this could help Taiwan in its international status and its global situation," Chen said.