Depending on what angle you view it from; President Donald Trump has made a brilliant tactical move, or committed a humiliating screw-up. When Trump made that unconventional move of taking a congratulatory phone call from the Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and expressing doubts about the “One China” policy, Beijing was unbelievably furious.
According to a report in The New York Times, President Xi Jinping of China had not spoken to Trump since Nov. 14, 2016. That was one heck of a tantrum that the Chinese was throwing. The White House announced this week that Trump had sent Xi a letter wishing him happy Chinese Lunar New Year, although the U.S. president should have issued greetings when the holiday fell on Jan. 28.
The delay, something that hadn’t been done by past presidents, had triggered speculation whether it was an oversight or a deliberate act. However, Chinese social media users were warmed by a brief video clip of Donald Trump’s granddaughter singing in Chinese that circulated on the web earlier this month, suggesting that Trump knew about the Chinese Lunar New Year.
Perhaps Washington was trolling and testing Beijing to see how far the U.S. could provoke China. Finally, President Donald Trump spoke to President Xi Jinping on Thursday – and committed to the “One China” policy. That should come as a great relief to China as a confrontation is the last thing that the Chinese wants now, as the country is busy tackling its economic uncertainties.
The White House said that both leaders had lengthy conversations and discussed numerous topics, and President Trump agreed, at the request of President Xi, to honour “One China” policy. The acknowledgement was of paramount importance to China as it means Trump administration recognizes Taiwan as a province of China.
It was believed that President Xi Jinping would refuse to talk to Trump until he publicly accepted the policy. But at the same time, diplomatic sources in Beijing say China had been nervous about Xi being left humiliated in the event a call with Trump went wrong and the details were leaked to the media, the same way Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was lectured and humiliated by Trump.
Critics of Trump may say Trump’s U-turn was a humiliating weakness of America so much so that they’ve surrendered to the Chinese. And Beijing could trumpet it for months as a sweet victory after Trump broke the diplomatic ties established since 1979. However, President Xi Jinping could have promised something in return for Trump’s U-turn.
In reality, the phone call between Trump and Xi was extremely significant to China because it was done just before the visit of Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the White House on Friday. The Chinese had sought reassurance that President Trump did not intend to demolish US-China relations in favour of stronger US-Japan relations.
In a separate statement carried by China’s Foreign Ministry, Xi said China appreciated Trump’s upholding of the “one China” policy. Can you see how clever Trump was in the “One China” drama? He has basically turned a 40-year-old diplomatic relationship into a controversy and gains appreciation for reverting back to its original form.
Knowing the Taiwan issue was very sensitive, President Trump deliberately “played with fire”. He has caused concern in Beijing when he indicated that policy could change, suggesting the US should not abide by “One China” policy unless it secured concessions from Beijing on trade. So, did President Xi secretly give away something desired by Trump?
Chinese citizens see Taiwan as the last piece in China’s territorial jigsaw. Any further move towards independence and international recognition for the island would have represented a dangerous humiliation for Mr. Xi. In order to help Xi’s enemies within the Chinese Communist Party, Mr. Trump could simply start a drama of supporting Taiwan’s independence.