By Jeff Mason, Stephen J. Adler and Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday spurned the Taiwanese president’s suggestion that the two leaders hold another phone call, saying he did not want to create problems for Chinese President Xi Jinping when Beijing appears to be helping efforts to rein in North Korea.
In a White House interview, Trump brushed aside the idea after Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen told Reuters on Thursday she would not rule out talking directly again to the U.S. president, an act certain to incense China. The status of self-ruled Taiwan is possibly the most sensitive issue between Washington and Beijing.
“Look, my problem is I have established a very good personal relationship with President Xi. I really feel that he is doing everything in his power to help us with a big situation,” Trump told Reuters, referring to signs that China may be working to head off any new missile or nuclear test by Pyongyang, Beijing’s neighbor and ally.
“So I wouldn’t want to be causing difficulty right now for him,” Trump added. “I think he’s doing an amazing job as a leader and I wouldn’t want to do anything that comes in the way of that. So I would certainly want to speak to him first.”
As president-elect in early December, Trump took a congratulatory phone call from Tsai. It was the first contact between a leader of Taiwan and an incumbent or incoming U.S. president in nearly four decades, and Trump cast doubt on Washington’s longstanding policy of acknowledging Beijing’s “one China” policy, which asserts that Taiwan is a part of China.
The call angered Beijing because it fears contacts between Taiwan and leaders of other countries would confer sovereignty on the island. Democratic Taiwan, self-ruled since 1949, has no interest in being ruled by autocratic China.
Trump agreed to honor the “one China” policy in February and then hosted Xi at his Florida resort earlier this month.
Trump’s dismissal of Tsai’s suggestion underscored the importance he is placing on enlisting China’s help in defusing tension with North Korea, which has become his biggest national security challenge since taking office in January, 100 days ago come Saturday.
On Friday, in response to Trump’s remarks, Taiwan’s presidential office said it had no plans “at this stage” to hold a call, and that it understood the United States had priorities in handling regional affairs.
In a statement, Tsai’s spokesman, Alex Huang, said the government would not “overly limit” itself, but would pursue the island’s best interest.
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang urged Taiwan to pay attention to the United States’ reaction.
“We consistently oppose countries which have diplomatic relations with China having any form of official exchanges with Taiwan,” Geng told a daily news briefing on Friday.
“This position is very clear and very firm.”
Tsai told Reuters on Thursday Taiwan’s ties with the United States have been improving. She said Taiwan may need to buy from its sole arms supplier the F-35 fighter jet, the most advanced stealth warplane in the U.S. arsenal.
“We have the opportunity to communicate more directly with the U.S. government,” Tsai said. “We don’t exclude the opportunity to call President Trump himself, but it depends on the needs of the situation and the U.S. government’s consideration of regional affairs.”
Tsai said, “We don’t rule out any items that would be meaningful to our defense and our defense strategy and the F-35 is one such item.”
But when told Taiwan’s president had said the island might want to buy F-35 aircraft, Trump said: “Oh, I haven’t been informed. I’d have to think about that. I’d have to speak to my people about that. They (the Taiwanese government) do buy a lot of equipment from us.”
China’s Defence Ministry said on Thursday it was resolutely opposed to any country selling arms to Taiwan.
U.S. officials told Reuters last month that the Trump administration was crafting a big arms package for Taiwan that could include advanced rocket systems and anti-ship missiles to defend against China, a deal sure to anger Beijing.
But one of the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said at the time the administration was not considering selling the F-35 to Taiwan.
The package is expected to be significantly larger than one that was shelved at the end of the Obama administration – valued at around $1 billion – but completion of a new deal could take months and possibly into next year, the official said.
The Global Times, an influential Chinese Communist Party-backed tabloid, called Tsai’s government “a naughty child” in an editorial on Friday and said it would “strongly counter” any move to sell Taiwan advanced fighter jets.
“Each time the Tsai Ing-wen authorities step out of line they will pay the price, like a naughty child in class getting a stern reprimand for shouting out or smashing the glass at school,” it said.
(Additional reporting by Jean Yoon and J.R. Wu in Taipei; Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Writing by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Howard Goller and Clarence Fernandez)