It was an ice-breaking call China’s President Xi Jinping had been waiting for since the maverick billionaire Donald Trump took charge as the 45th president of the US amid mounting anxiety in Beijing about the course of China-US relations. On February 9, Mr Trump finally called up the Chinese leader and assured that Washington will stick to “One China” policy, reaffirming the longstanding policy of not having diplomatic ties with Taiwan. The call, preceded by a goodwill letter from Mr Trump to Xi Jinping, was predictably welcomed by the Chinese leader, setting a positive tone for steering Sino-US relations amid a complex geopolitical landscape in the Asia-Pacific region.
“President Trump agreed, at the request of President Xi, to honour our ‘One China’ policy,” the White House said after the phone call, referring to an understanding dating back to 1970s under which Washington maintained no formal diplomatic relations with China and not with Taiwan which China views as part of its territory. After the Communists won the Chinese civil war in 1949, the defeated Nationalists fled to Taiwan. The US formally established diplomatic relations with China in 1979, but continues to maintain informal ties with Taiwan. Over the years, the US has been the self-ruled island state’s largest trading partner and provider of cutting-edge weapons.
The White House statement also said the leaders of the world’s two largest economies had held a “lengthy” and “extremely cordial” telephone call during which “numerous topics” were discussed. It did not get into specific issues, although the US and China have differences over an array of issues like trade and security.
While the White House statement was brief, China’s official news agency Xinhua published a detailed account of the conversations between the two leaders. It said Xi vowed to work with Trump’s administration to ensure the relations could advance “in a sound and stable manner” and that “the two countries are totally capable of becoming good cooperative partners.”
Later, Lu Kang, a spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry, told reporters that “China and the US need to cooperate, and can cooperate in many areas.”
The Trump-Xi conversation took place a day after a Chinese aircraft and a US Navy patrol plane came close to each other over the disputed South China Sea where China has territorial issues with a number of Southeast Asian countries, including Vietnam and the Philippines.
Speculation about the future of Sino-US ties under Trump had been rife ever since the American president, soon after his election victory in November last year, had sparked anxiety in Beijing by receiving a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen. That had caused great consternation in Beijing. What added to worries across the world about a potentially dangerous course of Sino-US relations was that Trump had asserted that he did not understand why the US should stick to “One China” policy. In the run up to US presidential poll, Mr Trump had accused China of building a “massive fortress,” triggering speculation that the Trump administration is likely to pursue a much muscular policy towards China on trade, security and other issues.
Mr Trump’s reassurance about “One China” policy was significant in view of his earlier conversation between Taiwan’s leader, but it only served to reiterate the known US policy pursued under successive Republican and Democratic presidents. In fact, well before the Trump-Xi phone call, the Trump team was already doing the groundwork for a conciliatory approach towards China as National Security Adviser Michael T. Flynn spoke with China’s influential State Councillor Yang Jiechi and Flynn and his deputy K. T. McFarland hand-delivered Mr Trump’s letter to China’s Ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai. In that letter, Mr Trump wrote that he wished “the Chinese people a happy new year as per the Chinese lunar calendar. Mr Trump “looks forward to working with President Xi to develop a constructive relationship that benefits both the United States and China,” said the letter.
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