Xi, Trump, and One China

Yesterday, I joined the conversation at ChinaFile, following President Trump’s phone call with Xi Jinping and Trump’s commitment to the “one China” policy:

In his phone call with Xi, Trump stated he agreed “to honor our ‘one China’ policy.” During the transition before his inauguration, Trump conducted an unprecedented phone call with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, and created uncertainty about whether his administration would continue with the “one China” policy, which has served as the foundation of U.S.-China relations. In an interview with Fox, he said “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.”

The initial response to the call has been to declare Xi the “winner” and Trump the “loser,” based on Trump’s reversal. The New York Times declared that Trump’s move “gives China an upper hand.” Yet diplomacy is not a boxing match. The rush to keep score is premature for several reasons.

First, Trump only referred to the policy. In all the available readouts of the call, no mention exists of Trump repeating the components of the one China policy, which include the three communiqués (1972, 1979, 1982), the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, and the 1982 “six assurances” given to Taiwan. Although a helpful affirmation of the foundation of U.S.-China relations, Trump’s general reference to the one China policy left him room to interpret it broadly.

Second, with Tsai’s election as Taiwan’s President, Beijing has pressed her to affirm the “1992 consensus” about one China. Her reluctance to do so means Beijing is growing ever more suspicious of her intentions regarding independence. In this context, if Trump decides to significantly alter U.S. relations with Taiwan, even if he does so while remaining under the umbrella of a one China policy, tensions in U.S.-China relations will likely increase significantly.

Third, talk is cheap. Trump is an unconventional president, with a transactional orientation and impulse. He may change his mind, or offer a new interpretation. China will also push to cement his pledge in the call in other meetings and joint statements between U.S. and Chinese officials. Trump may decide to push back.

Finally, beyond the call, how will the two sides address the key issues in the region and the relationship that require their engagement? In addition to Taiwan, these include the DPRK’s nuclear program, maritime claims in the South China Sea, and bilateral trade, to name a few. The call was a positive development, but the key question is whether Xi and Trump can work together. Keeping score of “winners” and “losers,” and who has the upper hand, misses the bigger picture altogether.