President Trump just backed down from what could have been a serious fight with China.
On Thursday evening in Washington, he appeared to back away from confrontation with Beijing by agreeing to honor the one-China policy, during a lengthy telephone call with China’s President Xi Jinping.
The move is set to ease tensions between the world’s two most powerful nations: relations had been inflamed after Trump suggested he would only commit to the one-China policy if Beijing addressed his concerns about trade and currency issues.
Experts had previously noted with concern that Trump had not spoken to Xi since his inauguration, despite speaking or meeting with at least 18 other world leaders – although the two men did talk by phone days after Trump’s election victory.
In a statement issued late Thursday, the White House said the two men had held a lengthy and “extremely cordial” conversation.
“The two leaders discussed numerous topics and President Trump agreed, at the request of President Xi, to honor our one-China policy,” the White House statement said.
In return, Xi said he “appreciated his U.S. counterpart, Donald Trump, for stressing that the U.S. government adheres to the one-China policy,” state news agency Xinhua reported.
The one-China policy forms the bedrock of U.S.-China diplomatic ties, established by President Richard Nixon and China’s leader Mao Zedong. It rules out independence and diplomatic recognition for the island of Taiwan.
Trump’s insistence that it was open for negotiation had brought a sharp rebuke from China, which insisted the policy was highly sensitive and “nonnegotiable.”
It was not clear if Trump had gained any concessions from China in return for endorsing the policy – Xinhua said the two men agreed to “strengthen mutually beneficial cooperation” in trade, economic, investment and international affairs.
Experts said Trump might simply have realized that relations would never get off the ground without endorsing the one-China idea.
“Trump should have never raised the one-China policy to begin with and now has backed down given that he probably realizes that it’s a complicated, thorny issue that is simply not open for discussion,” said James Zimmerman, office managing partner of the law firm Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton, a business leader who has worked in China since 1998.
“There is certainly a way of negotiating with the Chinese, but threats concerning fundamental, core interests are counterproductive from the get-go. The end result is that Trump just confirmed to the world that he is a paper tiger, a zhilaohu – someone that seems threatening but is wholly ineffectual and unable to stomach a challenge.”
Ni Feng, deputy director of the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing said Trump’s previous comments had sent the relationship between the two countries “tumbling and collapsing.”
Ni said he believed the reason the call had not taken place before now was Trump’s lack of familiarity with the history of relations between the two nations.
“Without acknowledgement of the one-China policy, Sino-U.S. relations cannot proceed,” he said. “No president has ever refused to acknowledge it since the U.S. and China established diplomatic relations in the 70s, and no U.S. president has ever created such confusion.”
“Now we can say that Sino-U.S. relations can proceed,” he said.
Lv Xiang, another Sino-U.S. relations expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Science, said by mentioning “at the request of President Xi” in the White House statement, the U.S. “might want to show that they still have reservations on the issue.”
However, Lv said the one China policy had been a very important topic in preliminary conversations leading up to the phone call. “The precondition of the call is the basic understanding and acceptance of the one-China policy,” he said.
The timing of the phone call also appeared significant, coming on the eve of a formal summit between Trump and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe set to take place in Washington on Friday.
Japan is a historic enemy of China and a key modern-day strategic rival.
In December, following his election and before his transition, Trump made waves with a protocol-breaking telephone call with Taiwan’s leader, Tsai Ing-wen.
It was the first communication between leaders of the United States and Taiwan since 1979 and the product of months of preparation by Trump’s advisers, who advocated for a new strategy of engagement with Taiwan to rattle China.
As expected, China reacted sternly, but then Trump publicly questioned whether the one-China policy was in the United States’ best interests.
He fired off provocative tweets about the Chinese – on currency manipulation, imports from the United States and its military buildup in the South China Sea.
Trump told the Wall Street Journal in a January interview, shortly before his inauguration, that he was open to shifting U.S. policy on China and Taiwan.
“Everything is under negotiation, including one-China, ” Trump told the newspaper.
The United States maintains a military relationship with Taiwan, which Beijing considers a province, but closed its embassy there in 1979.
The White House said representatives from both countries will engage in “discussions and negotiations on various issues of mutual interest.” The two leaders also extended invitations to meet in their respective countries and “look forward to further talks with very successful outcomes.”
The phone call to Xi came a day after Trump sent a letter wishing China a “prosperous Year of the Rooster” – sent 11 days after China celebrated its Lunar New Year festival.
The White House issued a statement saying Trump had “provided a letter” to Xi on Wednesday, thanking the Chinese leader for a congratulatory note he had sent on the U.S. president’s inauguration.
Trump wished the Chinese people a “happy Lantern Festival and prosperous Year of the Rooster” and said “he looks forward to working with President Xi to develop a constructive relationship that benefits both the United States and China,” according to the statement.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Simon Denyer, Philip Rucker