U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) spoke by phone Friday morning, Beijing time.

The White House says that during the call, “President Trump agreed, at the request of President Xi, to honor our ‘one China’ policy.”

The position is a change from Trump’s earlier questioning of the policy. While the call has been mostly interpreted as stabilizing for shaky U.S.-China relations, others argue that the concession gives China an “upper hand" in the dynamic between the worlds two biggest economies.

In China, the state-owned Global Times notes in an editorial that “since assuming office, Trump and his team have changed their rhetoric about China. Trump has stopped openly challenging China's core interests, and instead showed respect to Beijing. The change creates an impression that Trump is learning about his role in the realm of Sino-U.S. ties. He's now sending a new message that he does not want to be a disruptor of the Sino-U.S. relations.”

The op-ed adds that the Trump-Xi phone call, “is a sign that some confusion in the relationship has been sorted out at the current stage. The Sino-U.S. ties have, after a little shiver, returned to where they are supposed to stand.”

In Taiwan, Presidential Office Spokesperson Alex Huang (黃重諺) said, “Taiwan and the U.S. have been in close contact and communication regarding this development, and continue to take an effective ‘zero surprise" approach.”

Huang also said, “The U.S. administration including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has on multiple occasions reiterated its support for Taiwan and its commitment to the Taiwan Relations Act, and for this Taiwan is most grateful.”

The New York Times, in an article headlined, “Trump, Changing Course on Taiwan, Gives China an Upper Hand,” quotes Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University of China, in Beijing, and an adviser to China’s State Council.

Shi said, “Trump lost his first fight with Xi and he will be looked at as a paper tiger [...] This will be interpreted in China as a great success, achieved by Xi’s approach of dealing with him.”

Taiwan Sentinel editor-in-chief J. Michael Cole writes, “While vague, the White House statement’s reference to President Trump’s agreeing to honor our — that is, the U.S.’ — ‘one China’ policy should be sufficient to please Beijing while reassuring Taipei that Washington has no intention to revise its official position, such as adopting the more definitive language contained in Beijing’s ‘one China’ principle.”

Cole also points out, “Although Mr. Trump’s apparent (and not entirely unexpected) shift toward continuity may disappoint the more impatient segment of Taiwan’s green camp who were hoping for a break with the longstanding status quo, his decision to do so should dispel fears in Beijing and remove some of the incentives it had for punishing Taiwan. By doing so, President Trump may therefore have removed some of the variables that could have contributed to instability in the Taiwan Strait at a time when Washington is still fleshing out its policies for the wider Asia Pacific.”

Change in course

The incoming Trump administration late last year sent shockwaves through foreign policy community after a phone call on Dec. 2, 2016, between Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) and then President-elect Trump. The call, thought to be the first time a president or president-elect of the United States has directly contacted the leader of Taiwan since 1979, marked a break with convention, as China has for decades blocked formal relations between the U.S. and Taiwan.

Days later, Trump, during an interview with Fox News Sunday, signaled the potential for a change in the U.S. position on China.

"I fully understand the 'one China' policy, but 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," Trump told Fox.

Trump has also been a vocal critic of China’s military build-ups in disputed territories in the South China Sea.

In a series of tweets following the call with Tsai, Trump said, “Did China ask us if it was OK to devalue their currency (making it hard for our companies to compete), heavily tax our products going into […] their country (the U.S. doesn't tax them) or to build a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea? I don't think so!”

Rex Tillerson, then nominee for Secretary of State, on Jan. 11 testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the U.S. as part of the confirmation process for his role.

During the hearing, Republican Sen. Cory Gardner asked the former ExxonMobil chief executive what the position on Taiwan and the one-China policy would be under the new administration. Tillerson noted the “important commitments” made to Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) the Six Assurances Accord and said the U.S. should express a “reaffirmation” of those.

“I think it is important that Taiwan knows we are going to live up to the commitments under the Relations Act and Six Issues Accord,” he said. “That in of itself is a message.”

Tillerson said the action was part of a broader “whole of China” approach the U.S. would take in the region.

The TRA, which dates back to 1979 after the U.S. established diplomatic ties with Beijing, enables continued non-official ties between Washington and Taipei including the authorization of the American Institute in Taiwan. The Six Assurances includes the promise the U.S. will not set a date for ceasing arms sales to Taiwan and it will not formally recognize Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan. Writing about the TRA in 2009, the former head of American Institute in Taiwan Richard Bush noted that the TRA’s security-commitment “falls short of a defense treaty.”

Editor: Olivia Yang