Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen, President Trump and China's President Xi Jinping. (From left: Chiang Ying-ying/AP; Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post; Jason Lee/Reuters)

President Trump just backed down from what could have been a serious fight with China.

On Thursday evening in Washington, Trump 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 one-China policy, ruling out independence for the island of Taiwan, forms the bedrock of U.S.-China diplomatic ties. By previously questioning it, Trump had underlined his combative and unpredictable style of diplomacy but also clearly crossed a red line with China.

Relations had been inflamed after Trump suggested that he would commit to the one-China policy only if Beijing addressed his concerns about trade and currency issues. Trump’s suggestion that it could be used as a bargaining chip had brought a sharp rebuke from China, which insisted that the policy was “nonnegotiable.”

(The Washington Post)

It was not clear whether Trump had gained any concessions from China in return for reversing course and endorsing the policy. It’s much more likely, experts said, that Trump might simply have been persuaded that relations would never get off the ground without agreeing to the one-China idea.

Nevertheless, the whole episode is likely to have cost Trump credibility in China.

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. Trump probably stepped back, Zimmerman said, 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.”

Experts had previously noted with concern that Trump had not spoken to Xi since his inauguration, despite holding conversations or meetings with at least 18 other world leaders (although Trump and Xi did talk by phone days after Trump’s election victory in November).

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 believes that was why the phone call had been delayed.

(Alice Li,Victoria Walker/The Washington Post)

“Without acknowledgment 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 that 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.

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 nations, the state news agency Xinhua reported. 

“The development of China and the United States absolutely can complement each other and advance together,” Xi said. “Both sides can absolutely become very good cooperative partners.”

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang would not be drawn out on the consultations and negotiations leading up to the call, saying only that adhering to the one-China principle is the “obligation” any American government should fulfill and adding that adherence to it is an “important safeguard” for the sound and steady growth of bilateral ties. 

Taiwan’s presidential spokesman, Huang Chung-yen, suggested that the administration of Tsai Ing-wen 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 in Washington on Friday.

Japan is a historic enemy of China and a key modern-day strategic rival, and Beijing was sure to be watching closely. 

Trump was expected to use the occasion to reinforce his commitment to the mutual defense pact between the United States and Japan, a policy that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis took pains to underline during a visit to Tokyo last week. 

Norio Maruyama, a spokesman for the Japanese delegation, said Japan welcomed Trump's conversation with Xi.

“It’s good and positive in terms of peace and security of the region and the international community,” Maruyama said. “This is the right way forward.”

In December, after his election, Trump made a protocol-breaking telephone call with Taiwan’s Tsai.

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.

Trump then told 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.” 

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. 

Philip Rucker in Washington and Congcong Zhang and Luna Lin in Beijing contributed to this report.