When President Donald Trump called Chinese President Xi Jinping Thursday evening, much of China’s fear of the new U.S. president melted away.
During the course of the call, Trump agreed to honor, at Xi’s request, the one China policy, alleviating concerns that Trump might upend a policy China considers the “political foundation of U.S.-China relations.”
Before he took office, Trump cast uncertainty over the future of the one China policy, which states that there is only one China represented by the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan is a part of China. For the Chinese government, this principle is a “prerequisite for the development of relations between China and the rest of the world.” The policy has been in place since the U.S. officially cut ties with Taiwan in 1979. By engaging Taiwanese leadership and questioning the value of upholding the policy without receiving anything in return from China, Trump raised alarms in Beijing, which repeatedly warned Trump that the principle is “non-negotiable.” Trump’s decision to continue to respect the policy allows China to breathe a little easier.
“Trump has stopped openly challenging China’s core interests, and instead showed respect to Beijing,” the Global Times observed, “Trump is learning about his role in the realm of Sino-US ties.”
“Sino-US ties have, after a little shiver, have returned to where they are supposed to stand,” the article added.
The Global Times commentary, while not necessarily speaking for Beijing, indicates that some in China believe Trump is learning his place or was put in his place.
Some observers suggest that Trump’s sudden shift was a sign of weakness and that he is playing right into China’s hands.
Following Trump’s decision to uphold the one China policy, the New York Times asserted that the president’s reversal “gives China the upper hand.” The Washington Post argued that Trump backed down from a fight and shied away from confrontation with Beijing. The Guardian suggested that president’s choice is the “latest sign Trump may turn out to be a paper tiger,” a common Chinese expression typically used to indicate that something or someone is all bark and no bite.
“Trump lost his first fight with Xi and will be looked at as a paper tiger,” Shi Yinhong, a foreign policy advisor for the Chinese government, told the New York Times. “This will be interpreted in China as a great success, achieved by Xi’s approach of dealing with him.”
“China will see him as weak,” Hugh White, a strategic studies professor at the Australian National University, told New York Times reporters.
But, it is still too early to say whether or not China now has the upper hand. It is unclear what concessions Trump may have received from China in return or whether Trump’s decision to uphold the one China policy will remain unchanged throughout his presidency.
“If he agreed to the one China policy, that means there is no danger of direct war between China and the United States. That fact is very positive,” Yan Xuetong, dean of the school of international relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing, told reporters, adding that China remains suspicious. “Even though Trump has said he will support the one China policy, China cannot fully trust him.”
In the same China Daily article that claimed “reason still prevails in the White House,” the journalist noted, “It is still too early to conclude Trump no longer seeks to antagonize China.”
The Global Times also commented that “uncertainties still loom.”