Trump commits to “One China” policy in phone call to Chinese Premier Xi
U.S. President Donald Trump affirmed his commitment to recognize the “One China” policy in his first phone call with Chinese Premier Xi Jinping, allaying fears he was prepared to upend the strategic relationship between the world’s two biggest economies.
That assurance, given at Xi’s request during a Thursday evening phone call described by the White House as “lengthy” and “extremely cordial,” has gone a long way to soothe international jitters that the two powers were headed for confrontation under the Trump administration.
“This creates more confidence that China-U.S. relations will not completely fall apart, that they will not walk into a showdown or even total war,” Victor Gao, a former Chinese Foreign Ministry official who served as former Premier Deng Xiaoping’s English interpreter, told VICE News.
“Whatever differences there are can be dealt with much more constructively.”
Gao hailed Trump’s affirmation of the policy – under which self-governing Taiwan is recognized as part of the same Chinese nation as the mainland – as a “landmark shift” in his position toward China, “especially against all the noises (he) has created.”
Trump consistently railed against China on the campaign trail and carried this approach into the early days of his presidential transition, with a series of confrontational statements and actions that further fueled anxiety about the relationship.
Among other charges, he has accused China of currency manipulation, cheating in trade matters, and failing to rein in North Korea.
But Trump’s China bluster escalated to serious diplomatic tension shortly after his election win in November, when he broke a longstanding protocol by accepting a phone call from the president of Taiwan. (The U.S. has limited its relations with Taiwan to unofficial status since switching diplomatic recognition in 1979 to the mainland, which views Taiwan as a breakaway province.)
Shortly after the call, Trump publicly questioned the U.S.’s commitment to “One China” – viewed as a red line by Beijing — and again raised fears he would upset decades-old policy between the two countries. His choice of strident economic nationalists as trade advisers also pointed to an impending clash. Trump’s “trade tsar” Peter Navarro, head of the newly created White House National Trade Council, is an outspoken critic of Beijing who has written books titled “The Coming China Wars” and “Death by China”; Wilbur Ross, the billionaire investor who is Trump’s nominee for commerce secretary, is a fellow China hawk who argued during his Senate confirmation hearing for a tougher line on the world’s “most protectionist” large economy.
While Beijing officials maintained a level response to Trump’s rhetoric, Chinese state media outlets reacted more aggressively, with one outlet threatening the country would “take revenge” if Trump abandoned “One China.”
But cooler heads have prevailed on both sides, at least for now. China’s official news agency Xinhua reported Friday that the two leaders had pledged to “boost win-win cooperation in a variety of areas” to develop a constructive relationship.
Xi said the countries had maintained “close communication on issues of common concern” since Trump entered office, and noted the urgency of the need to boost cooperation in light of global challenges. The leaders invited each other to visit their respective countries and expressed a desire to meet early on in Trump’s presidency.
Zhang Baohui, a political scientist at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University, said the cordiality of the call was not totally unexpected, as it followed days of lower-level exchanges between the countries, including a meeting between Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner and China’s ambassador to Washington, Cui Tiankai. Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, and 5-year-old grand-daughter, Arabella – a student of Chinese who won admirers on Chinese social media for a clip of her singing in Mandarin – also attended a Lunar New Year reception at the Chinese Embassy last week.
“These developments together augur relatively stable Sino-U.S. relations,” said Zhang. “At least, they (have) removed the great sense of uncertainty.”
Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London, told VICE News that Trump’s acceptance of “One China” likely reflected a more sober understanding of the importance of the policy upon entering office.
“When you’re president, you have to speak in a different way,” he said. “Whether you want to revise these policy positions or not, they’re the result of a lot of effort over a lot of time.”
By choosing not to anger Beijing on such a fundamental tenet of the relationship, Trump may have opened a pathway for negotiations on a more pressing issue regarding U.S.-China relations – securing a better economic deal.
“This is a way of showing he’s prepared to talk,” said Brown.