WASHINGTON: In interviews after his election win, Donald Trump wondered aloud why he shouldn’t use the One-China policy as a bargaining chip with Beijing to get better trade terms.
Three weeks into his presidency, the threat to upend US policy on Taiwan -- a breakaway province in China’s eyes -- is off the table.
The White House said that Trump agreed in a telephone call on Thursday with Chinese President Xi Jinping to respect the policy, which has been the basis of ties between the two superpowers since the 1970s.
The One-China policy acknowledges that China and Taiwan are part of the same country. China considers the island a province and has made recognition of the policy the foundation for diplomatic ties with the US and all other countries. The US continues to sell weapons to Taiwan and is obligated to defend the island under a 1979 law.
The White House statement said that Trump agreed to respect the policy at the request of Xi during Thursday's call, which it described as “lengthy” and “extremely cordial.” In turn, Xi called for enhanced cooperation on a myriad of issues, from trade to investment to military affairs.
“Facing an extremely complicated global situation and rising challenges, there’s a greater need for continuing to enhance cooperation between China and the US,” Xi said, according to the state broadcaster China Central Television.
Signs of detente had emerged recently. In Tokyo last week, US Defence Secretary James Mattis said he didn’t see any need for “dramatic military moves” in the South China Sea, and urged a diplomatic solution.
Still, in China’s eyes, Trump’s move to back down on the One-China policy wasn’t a win because Taiwan was never negotiable in the first place.
“It is tempting to say Beijing won Round One, but that would be misleading,” said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London. “I should think that Xi is pleased with the outcome, but is still waiting to see what Trump really wants.”
With Taiwan’s status off the table, former Chinese diplomats see room for talks on other issues. They also see Trump’s retreat as evidence that Beijing’s “strategic composure” in response to his earlier remarks worked well.
“If you appear too eager, he’d think you’re weak and he’d become even more cocky," said Ma Zhengang, a former Chinese ambassador to the UK and ex-political attache in Washington. “Now we can talk. I see a lot of negotiation room in economy and trade. We can make mutual compromises here. Also on international affairs like North Korea and Iran.”
The White House statement was also welcomed in Taiwan. The Presidential Office said on Friday that good relations between the US and China were beneficial, adding that it has agreed with his administration to adopt a “zero-surprise” approach to communications.
The move is also likely to go down well in Japan, one of America's top allies in Asia, said Yoichi Kato, a senior research fellow at the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation in Tokyo.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was scheduled to meet Trump at the White House later on Friday, wouldn’t want to be drawn into a US diplomatic spat with its longtime rival.
An “embarrassed Xi can take out his rage and frustration on Japan by playing a ‘nationalism’ card or a ‘history card’ to make up for his political loss,” Kato said.
Still, as the world has seen over the past few months, Trump can change the atmosphere completely with a single tweet. And tensions remain high: The phone call with Xi came after US and China military aircraft had an “unsafe” encounter over a disputed part of the South China Sea, the first publicly confirmed incident since May.
“The way that China sees Donald Trump will depend on his deeds in the coming months, not his words only,” said He Weiwen, a former Chinese trade diplomat in San Francisco and New York and now a senior fellow at the Beijing-based Center for China and Globalization. “It has created a constructive atmosphere for talks. The results will depend on the talks."