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Trump's One China policy ‘reset’: new realism or tactical retreat?

modes of thought

President Trump and China's President Xi spoke by phone Thursday. Trump had questioned the 'One China' policy, infuriating Beijing, which says the question of its status is non-negotiable. 

In this Jan. 23, 2017 photo, Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, inspects preparatory work for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Zhangjiakou in northern China's Hebei province. Mr. Xi was aggrieved by President Trump's questioning of the One China policy, which Beijing sees as fundamental to its stature.
Li Tao/Xinhua/AP
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In backing down on his threat to use the status of Taiwan as leverage in negotiations with China, President Trump has avoided a serious confrontation with Beijing. The question now is whether this move represents a new realism in administration foreign policy - or is a tactical retreat that simply delays an inevitable clash.

If nothing else, the move – reflected in a phone call from Mr. Trump to Chinese President Xi Jinping Thursday night – appears to reflect a White House realization that some of Trump’s past rhetoric on US-Chinese relations has been counterproductive. Nor is it the only promised China policy Trump has modified. As a candidate, Trump vowed to label China a currency manipulator on day one of his presidency. That hasn’t yet occurred.

“It was a bad decision to ever put this issue of ‘One China’ on the table as a bargaining chip,” says Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser on Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

That said, retreating was the right thing to do, according to Ms. Glaser. 

“Now we’ll move beyond it and start to engage on other things,” she says.

The “One China” policy was a diplomatic foundation of the rapprochement that began between the US and communist China during the Nixon administration. It requires the US to maintain only unofficial ties with Taiwan, the prosperous, self-governing island China claims as its own territory. The US recognized the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal government of China in 1979.

Any hint that Washington might recognize Taiwan as its own nation infuriates Beijing, which sees the issue in the context of past Western humiliations.

But in December, Trump took a congratulatory phone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. The then-president-elect defended this breach of protocol by saying he was not sure the US should continue to be bound by "One China" strictures.

The result was a deep freeze. Following his own congratulatory call in November, Mr. Xi pointedly avoided further communication with the new US leader.

The administration got the message. According to news reports, new Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with White House officials to frame a response. (In his confirmation hearings, Mr. Tillerson had said he supported the One China policy.) On Thursday evening Trump and Xi talked on the phone, and the US leader walked back his previous Taiwan remarks.

The White House described the call as “extremely cordial” and said the two leaders invited each other to visit.

It’s possible Beijing will see the whole incident as evidence that President Trump’s rhetoric, like many of his tweets, can be discounted.

“I do worry that China may conclude Trump is basically full of hot air,” says Bonnie Glaser of CSIS.

But having cleared the air, the two nations can now move forward to address bilateral problems, many of which are controversial enough on their own. China is worried about an apparently deepening US relationship with Japan, for instance. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is visiting President Trump in Florida this week for golf and informal talks.

Trump, for his part, has long threatened tariffs as high as 45 percent on Chinese goods entering the US. He has complained bitterly that China is not helping enough to curb North Korea’s nuclear pretensions. Chinese territorial ambitions in the region remain a flash point, and the military forces of the two nations occasionally bump against each other. The US Pacific Command said this week that a Chinese early warning plane and a US Navy patrol plane had an “unsafe” encounter over the South China Sea. 

Removing an obstacle

In China, government officials and foreign policy experts collectively breathed a sigh of relief Friday after hearing about the call between the Chinese and US leaders.

Lu Kang, a spokesman for the China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said at a regular news briefing in Beijing on Friday that as the two largest economies in the world, the United States and China need to cooperate.

"Cooperation between China and the US will not only benefit people from the two countries," he said, "but also benefit people from other countries in the world."

After the phone call, Xi said China would work closely with the US to ensure bilateral ties could advance “in a sound and stable manner,” according to Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency.

Relations have been far from sound and stable since Trump’s call with the Taiwanese president in December, putting officials in China’s capital on edge.

Zhao Hai, a research fellow at the National Strategy Institute at Tsinghua University in Beijing, was among the many Chinese analysts worried about a major shift in Washington's approach toward Beijing. He says Trump’s reversal signals that perhaps he is willing to be more cooperative and has come to realize the importance of US-China relations.

“The One China policy is the bedrock of the relationship,” Mr. Zhao says. “Without this foundation, there’s no trust between the two countries. We have to confirm that the foundation is solid then move onto more cooperation in other areas. Otherwise, it’s just not going to work.”

Chinese state media reported that Xi said he appreciated Trump's upholding of the One China policy. The Chinese leader said he wants to cooperate with the US on a wide range of issues, including trade and investment, technology, energy, and global peace and stability.

Thursday’s phone call follows a letter Trump sent to Xi on Wednesday to offer a belated happy Chinese Lunar New Year and an early greeting for this Saturday’s Lantern Festival. 

Jia Qingguo, dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University, said the phone call and letter “pave the way for the normal development” of what is arguably the most important bilateral relationship in the world. But he cautions that many challenges still remain, from differences over trade policies to China’s military buildup in the South China Sea. 

“It’s a relief that we have one big obstacle removed from the path of the relationship,” Professor Jia says. “I don’t know how hopeful I am, but it’s definitely more promising after the phone call.”