BEIJING — President Trump just backed down from what could have been a serious fight with China.
On Thursday evening in Washington, he appeared to shy 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,” which he called the “political basis” of relations between the two nations, state news agency Xinhua reported.
“The development of China and the United States absolutely can complement each other and advance together. Both sides can absolutely become very good cooperative partners,” Xi said.
The one-China policy was first agreed by President Nixon and China’s leader Mao Zedong in 1972, and formed the bedrock for the establishment of diplomatic ties under President Carter in 1979. 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 “non-negotiable.”
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.
Much more likely, experts said, Trump might simply have been persuaded that relations would never get off the ground without endorsing the one-China idea.
Lawyer James Zimmerman, former head of the American Chamber of Commerce in China, said Trump never should have raised the one-China policy in the first place, and had now backed down, probably because he realized it was a “complicated, thorny issue that is simply not open for discussion.”
“There is certainly a way of negotiating with the Chinese, but threats concerning fundamental, core interests are counterproductive from the get-go,” he said. “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,” adding that he believed that was why the phone call had been delayed.
“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 Sciences, said by mentioning “at the request of President Xi” in the White House statement, the United States “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 was the basic understanding and acceptance of the one-China policy,” he said.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang would not be drawn on the consultations and negotiations leading up to the call, saying only that adhering to the one-China principle is the “obligation” that any American government should fulfill, and adding that the “unshaken upholding of this policy” is very important for the healthy and stable development of bilateral ties.
Taiwan’s presidential spokesman Huang Chung-yen suggested his administration had been warned in advance, saying in a statement that Taipei and Washington “have been in close contact and communication regarding this development, and continue to take an effective ‘zero surprise’ approach.”
In recent days, he said the U.S. administration, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, had “on multiple occasions reiterated its support for Taiwan.”
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, and Beijing is sure to be watching that summit extremely closely.
Trump is likely to use the occasion to reinforce his commitment to the mutual defense pact between United States and Japan, a policy that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis took pains to underline on a visit to Tokyo last week.
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.
In December. Trump suggested he would use Taiwan’s status as a bargaining chip, telling Fox News: “I don’t know why we have to be bound by a ‘one-China’ policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade.”
In January, shortly before his inauguration, he told the Wall Street Journal that he was open to shifting U.S. policy on China and Taiwan.
“Everything is under negotiation, including one-China, ” Trump told said.
Despite closing its embassy in Taipei in 1979, the United States remains Taiwan’s biggest ally and arms supplier and is bound by legislation to provide the means for the island to defend itself.
Defeated nationalist forces fled to the island in 1949 after losing a civil war to the Communists.
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. In that letter, Trump also said he looked forward to working with Xi to “develop a constructive relationship” that benefits both nations, the White House said.
On Wednesday, a U.S. Navy P-3C Orion surveillance aircraft was engaged in what the U.S. Pacific Command called an “unsafe” interaction with a Chinese military KJ-200 aircraft in international airspace over the South China Sea. aircraft.
“We will address the issue in appropriate diplomatic and military channels,” said Pacific Command spokesman Maj. Rob Shuford said in a statement Friday.
Such incidents are not uncommon, though, and the two nation’s militaries have improved communications in recent years to make them less common and less threatening.
Talking to the Global Times newspaper, an unnamed Chinese Foreign Minstry official said the incident had taken place near the island of Hainan, when two Chinese fighters had followed and monitored the U.S. plane “while maintaining a safe distance.”
“No dangerous action was taken,” the official said.
Rucker reported from Washington. Congcong Zhang and Luna Lin contributed from Beijing.
Updates earlier version to correct U.S. diplomatic relations formally established under President Carter.