It turns out Donald Trump may not be looking for a fight with China after all.
Just weeks after questioning a cornerstone of Washington’s diplomatic relationship with Beijing, Trump used a Thursday night phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping to say that he would honor the so-called “One China” policy that has kept ties between the two superpowers on an even keel since 1979.
In December, Trump had raised doubts about his commitment to the agreement — and infuriated many in Beijing — by speaking by phone with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. That was a big deal in diplomatic circles because no US president had spoken to a Taiwanese leader in decades due to the One China policy. The policy acknowledges Beijing’s stance that it alone represents China’s national government and that the island of Taiwan is a breakaway province that belongs to China. All of Trump’s recent predecessors had only unofficial diplomatic ties with Taiwan, and Trump’s direct conversation with Tsai broke with that practice.
Trump escalated things further when, a few days later, he refused to apologize for the call or back away from his apparent belief that the One China policy wasn’t set in stone.
"I fully understand the One China policy, but 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," Trump said.
At the time, Trump also correctly noted that the US sells billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment to Taiwan. China doesn’t like that either — but it’s not considered a violation of the One China policy.
Beijing pushed back swiftly against Trump, indicating that scuttling One China was a non-option and declaring that if the policy was ever placed on the negotiating table, talks over all other issues would immediately end.
As the Washington Post notes, it’s hard to say if Trump got anything in return for what amounts to a near-concession after his tough talk on dropping the One China policy. Rhetoric on China’s side was vague as well. “The development of China and the United States can complement each other and promote each other, and the two countries are totally capable of becoming good cooperative partners,” Xi said, according to the state news agency Xinhua.
Why Beijing is so committed to the One China policy
For the Chinese government, preserving One China wasn’t just about diplomacy, but also about protecting its own legitimacy against nationalists always on the lookout for signs the country is being disrespected or bullied by the US.
Recent statements from Trump’s team have only added to their concern. During his confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hinted at the idea of setting up a blockade against China’s navy in the South China Sea, which some nationalists in China interpreted as an invitation to war. And reports have emerged that Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon had predicted the US would go to war with China in the South China Sea as recently as nine months ago.
Needless to say, tensions were on the rise in the run up to Trump’s call with Xi, which had been a long time coming. It was the first conversation between the two leaders since Trump took office, and the 19th world leader that the president has spoken to or met with since Inauguration Day.
The call took place one day after Trump first extended his hand to China, when National Security Adviser Michael Flynn hand-delivered a letter to China’s ambassador saying the US was looking forward to building “constructive relations” with China.
The White House said Trump and Xi had a lengthy, wide-ranging talk that was “extremely cordial,” and that both leaders invited each other for a visit. The readout of the call contained no substantive details except this: “President Trump agreed, at the request of President Xi, to honor our ‘one China’ policy.”
There’s a very good chance that Trump realized that gambling on using the One China policy as a bargaining chip was too risky, given how adamant Beijing was that it could potentially end up causing a severing of ties between them. There’s also the fact that China is extremely large, extremely powerful, and has a huge web of economic ties with the US — something that explains why it’s easier to talk about reining in China than it is to do something about it.
“Every US president since Nixon has come into office promising to be tough on China, and every single one of them has backed off when they realize the complexity of the situation,” David Kang, a professor of international relations at the University of Southern California, told me during an interview in January.
Trump has shown a tendency to be extraordinarily antagonistic with some of the US’s closest allies, like when he gratuitously insulted the prime minister of Australia. But his first call with China showed uncommon prudence and restraint. It’s also the first call in days that wasn’t immediately followed by key details of the conversation leaking to the press. In other words, it was a double win of sorts for a new president desperately in search of a victory.