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March 28, 2017

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What's Trump getting from China?

The telephone conversation between U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping on Feb. 9 moved the two countries back from the edge of a precipice.

Trump had announced that he might reject the "one China" policy, which all American administrations had accepted since the 1970s, unless Beijing made trade concessions. China made it clear that this basic policy was not up for negotiation. The policy means Washington recognizes Beijing as the sole legal government of China and acknowledges the Chinese position that Taiwan is part of China.

According to a White House statement, during the conversation, "President Trump agreed, at the request of President Xi, to honor our 'one China' policy."

It is a little odd for the U.S. to say that Trump had agreed to change his position at the request of the Chinese president. It appears to suggest that China's leader now owes him a favor.

Actually, the Chinese have frequently asserted when conducting diplomacy that telephone calls or meetings took place upon the request of the foreign party, as though to underline China's superior status. Maybe the Americans are taking a leaf from the Chinese playbook.

The Chinese account of the conversation does not mention any request by Xi. Instead, it reported: "Donald Trump stressed that he fully understands the importance for the U.S. government to adhere to the 'one China' policy. The U.S. government firmly upholds the 'one China' policy."

China's account noticeably gives Xi the upper hand. "Appreciating Donald Trump's emphasis on the U.S. government's adherence to the 'one China' policy, Xi Jinping pointed out that the 'one China' policy is the political foundation for China-U.S. relations."

It sounded like a teacher lecturing a student.

Only on the Surface

With the resolution of the "one China" policy dispute, the U.S.-China relationship is back on track — at least on the surface.

But none of the old problems have been solved. Thus, last week (Feb. 18) the U.S. Navy sent a carrier strike group, including the USS Carl Vinson, into the South China Sea for "routine operations" despite an explicit warning from Beijing three days previously "to refrain from challenging China's sovereignty and security" in the area.

Under its "one China" policy, the U.S. doesn't recognize the democratically elected government in Taiwan, but it does maintain an "unofficial" body there that performs the functions of an embassy — the American Institute in Taiwan. The Trump administration is tightening its relationship with Taiwan, with Trump himself taking the unprecedented action of accepting a congratulatory phone call from its president, Tsai Ing-wen, in early December.

In fact, the Trump administration apparently informed Taiwan in advance of Trump's phone call with Xi. This suggests a level of cooperation not evident since diplomatic relations were broken in 1979.

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