Climbing down from a position that put the United States on a collision course with Beijing, President Trump has told Chinese President Xi Jinping in a telephone call that he would abide by the “one China” policy that effectively recognizes Beijing’s sovereignty over Taiwan.
The belated concession in a telephone call Thursday shows that the practicalities of modern geopolitics are beginning to sink in for the three-week-old Trump administration.
Trump hadn’t spoken to the Chinese leadership since taking office — a delay widely seen as a sign of Beijing’s irritation at Trump’s hints that he would fundamentally change U.S. policy toward the world’s second-largest economy.
According to a White House statement, Trump told Xi he would honor the diplomatic understanding, first established after President Nixon’s opening to China in 1972, that the United States will not challenge Beijing’s assertion of sovereignty over Taiwan, a self-governing island that Beijing views as a breakaway province.
“The two leaders discussed numerous topics and President Trump agreed, at the request of President Xi, to honor our ‘One China’ policy,” the statement said. It described the call as “extremely cordial.”
The shift is the latest sign that Trump has had to moderate some of his more provocative foreign policy pronouncements.
“I have a sense that Trump has become tweeter in chief, but he has some cooler heads around him who are taking care of business,’’ said Orville Schell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York. Schell said some of Trump’s more impetuous statements had “left people off-balance and scared and confused, but his lieutenants have realized we have to get this world stabilized.’’
Earlier this week, Trump vowed “strong support” for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, for example, weeks after calling the 38-nation military alliance “obsolete.”
Last week, his ambassador to the United Nations said the administration would not lift sanctions on Russia until it withdraws from Ukraine, weeks after Trump had suggested he might ease sanctions.
And Trump has backpedaled on a promise to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, a move that would infuriate the Muslim world since Palestinians also claim the city as their capital.
The reboot with China appears to be the handiwork of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and White House aide Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, who met with Chinese ambassador Cui Tiankai before a Lunar New Year event last week in Washington. Kushner’s wife, Ivanka Trump, attended the event with the couple’s 5-year-old daughter and released (to the delight of many Chinese) a video of the girl singing a song in Chinese.
Trump has repeatedly criticized China’s trade policies during and since the campaign. His promise to get tough on China has been a central element of Trump’s claim that his experience as a businessman would allow him to get better deals for the United States than his predecessors achieved.
The Chinese had shrugged off Trump’s campaign rhetoric as American politics as usual, but his statements about Taiwan rattled Beijing to the core.
In December, Trump said in an interview with 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.”
Shortly before his inauguration, he told the Wall Street Journal that “everything is under negotiation, including one China.”
The “one China” policy is essentially an agreement to disagree — a diplomatic fiction that allowed the United States and China to set aside their differences and build a relationship that by now dominates the world economy. Officially, the United States does not recognize the independence of Taiwan, which is led by the political descendants of the anti-Communist Chinese who fled the mainland after the Chinese Civil War, although it remains committed to its defense and has periodically sold arms to Taipei.
“Many of us don’t like the “one China policy’’ in a world of self-determination where Quebec can talk about leaving Canada, and Scotland about leaving the U.K.,’’ said Schell. “But it remains the basic fundament of the U.S.-China relationship and you better not mess with it or you won’t get anything done.’’
Trump broke with decades of diplomatic precedent when he accepted a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, on Dec. 2.
No U.S. president or president-elect is believed to have spoken directly with a Taiwanese leader since the U.S. recognized the mainland government and cut ties with Taiwan in 1979.
Many Taiwanese were delighted by the Trump-Tsai call — a rare moment of international recognition for their small but vibrant democracy — yet they have expressed concerns about becoming a geopolitical bargaining chip for Trump. Any upset in the delicate status quo is also risky for Taiwan, which counts the mainland as its leading trade partner.
Following the news of Trump’s call with Xi, Taiwan’s presidential office issued a cordial, yet muted statement on Friday, expressing understanding toward the U.S. goal of “peace and stability in East Asia.”
Trump told Xi he was “very happy” to speak with him, the agency reported, adding that he praised the “historic achievements” of China’s development. Trump said that developing the China-U.S. relationship has the “broad support of the American people,” the agency added.
Though Trump has spoken by phone with more than a dozen other world leaders since his inauguration, his only previous conversation with Xi took place in November, a week after the election.
The White House gave reporters no advance word that Trump would be making the call and did not release news of it until roughly 11 p.m. Eastern time. That suggested an effort to minimize attention to a move that amounted to a significant climb down for Trump on a subject that goes to the heart of his image as a successful businessman and dealmaker.
The phone call was made more urgent by the attention Trump is lavishing on Japan, China’s traditional rival in Asia. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrived in Washington on Friday and is being hosted for a day of golf Saturday in Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Florida retreat.
Trump has accused China of manipulating its currency, supporting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, economically “raping” the U.S. and creating “the concept of global warming” as a hoax to undercut U.S. manufacturing. During his campaign, he advocated a 45% tariff on Chinese exports to the U.S.
Trump’s top advisor on trade is Peter Navarro, a hawkish business professor at UC Irvine who directed a documentary called “Death by China.” Tillerson has also taken some confrontational positions — telling the Senate during his confirmation hearing that China should be denied access to artificial islands that it built in contested waters of the South China Sea.
Yet the Trump administration has markedly softened its tone since the campaign and the transition period.
In a phone call last week with China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, national security advisor Michael Flynn “noted that the U.S. government is committed to developing strong U.S.-China relations,” China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs reported.
And this week in Tokyo, Trump’s secretary of Defense, James N. Mattis, said issues in the South China Sea would be “best solved by the diplomats.”
On Wednesday, Trump sent Xi a letter wishing “the Chinese people a happy Lantern Festival and prosperous Year of the Rooster.”
He realized that this agreement the U.S. and China made before cannot be easily broken.
“The letter is the kind of standard language and protocol prepared for any new president,” said Paul Haenle, director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center in Beijing, who was a National Security Council China director in the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. “The timing might be linked to Tillerson’s confirmation last week.”
“My guess is that Tillerson is now making his own round of phone calls and meetings with ambassadors and foreign leaders,” he said.
Wang Huiyao, president of the Beijing-based think tank Center for China and Globalization, said Trump’s administration likely faced a rude awakening about the complexities of the U.S.-China relationship after his inauguration.
“I think Trump is more informed as a president now than when he was a candidate,” he said, “so he realized that this agreement the U.S. and China made before cannot be easily broken.”
Times staff writer David Lauter in Washington and special correspondents Yingzhi Yang in Beijing and Ralph Jennings in Taipei contributed to this report.
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3:40 p.m.: This article was updated with more background and reaction.
10:15 a.m.: This article was updated with new details from the White House.
9:30 a.m. Feb. 10: This article was updated with reaction from Taiwan.
11:15 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details of the call between the two leaders.
This article was originally published Feb. 9 at 9:20 p.m.