19 April 2019
Chinese President Xi Jinping insists that the 'one-China' policy is the political foundation of China-US relations. Photo: Reuters
Chinese President Xi Jinping insists that the 'one-China' policy is the political foundation of China-US relations. Photo: Reuters

What did Trump get in return for agreeing to keep ‘one China’?

The telephone conversation between US 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 US 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 US government to adhere to the one-China policy. The US government firmly upholds the one-China policy.”

China’s account noticeably gives Xi the upper hand. “Appreciating Donald Trump’s emphasis on the US government’s adherence to the one-China policy, Xi Jinping pointed out that the one-China policy is the political foundation for China-US relations.” It sounded like a teacher lecturing a student.

With the resolution of the “one China policy” dispute, the US-China relationship is back on track — at least on the surface.

But none of the old problems have been solved. Thus, on Feb. 18, the US 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 US 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.

As a mark of its unofficial character, the AIT’s premises for the past three and a half decades have not been protected by marine guards, unlike US embassies around the world. However, it was recently announced by former AIT director Stephen Young that when the new compound of the AIT is completed, US Marines will be posted there.

The “one-China policy” recognizes Hong Kong as Chinese territory. But several US Senators, including former presidential candidate Marco Rubio, have reintroduced the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which is designed to strengthen the territory’s autonomy under “one country, two systems”.

The bill also requests that the US president identify persons responsible for the surveillance, abduction, detention or forced confessions of certain booksellers and journalists in Hong Kong. It asks the president to freeze their US-based assets and deny them entry into the US. This provision is in response to the abductions of booksellers in 2015.

Four days after the Trump-Xi conversation, China granted Trump a trademark which he had been seeking unsuccessfully in Chinese courts for 10 years – the exclusive rights to use the “Trump” name for “building construction services”.

According to the Chinese media, there are 49 pending Trump trademark applications and 77 which will be due for renewal during his term, including Trump toilets and a Trump International Hotel.

While the timing may be coincidental, there is speculation that maybe granting the trademark was Xi returning Trump a favor for adhering to the “one China policy”.

However, favor or not, the trademark itself may well land Trump in another legal squabble in the US, where the president is barred by the constitution from accepting “any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.” Arguably, a trademark could be an emolument.

– Contact us at [email protected]


Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.

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