President Donald Trump’s stated commitment to honour the One China policy signals a softening of his administration’s approach towards Beijing. Earlier, Mr. Trump had given enough indications that he would pursue a radically different policy towards Beijing by reviewing the One China policy, a cornerstone of Sino-U.S. relations. First, he accepted a congratulatory call from the Taiwanese President, breaking 37 years of American practice and thereby infuriating Beijing. Later, in an interview, he declined to endorse the One China policy unless he saw progress from Beijing in its trade and currency policies, triggering speculation that he would improve ties with Taiwan and use the policy as a bargaining chip. Such speculation was effectively killed last week when Mr. Trump took a 180-degree turn on China in his first telephone conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping. It is not clear what made Mr. Trump change his mind. Some reports suggest that ever since he accepted the call from the Taiwanese leader, Beijing drew a One China red line for further cooperation on key issues between the two countries. It took three weeks for the Trump-Xi conversation to take place after the former took office, a relatively long time given the importance of bilateral ties between the world’s largest economies. Mr. Trump had talked to at least 30 world leaders before he got Mr. Xi on the line. The administration had taken clear measures to ease tensions with Beijing, largely caused by Mr. Trump’s remarks. The White House first sent belated Chinese new year greetings to Mr. Xi and released the letter to the public. Only then did both leaders speak.
This could well be a reality check for Mr. Trump in his future engagement with China. For Beijing, the One China policy is the bedrock of its engagement with the world. Picking a fight with China over an issue it deems most sensitive in its security parlance in the initial days of his presidency shows bad diplomatic judgment on the part of Mr. Trump. It would unnecessarily escalate tensions between the two countries. This doesn’t mean the U.S. should accept Chinese terms on all global issues. There are areas where both can cooperate, such as in dealing with global conflicts; areas where they compete, such as in trade and investment; and areas where they disagree, such as the South China Sea dispute. The challenge before Mr. Trump is to address these issues with Beijing without disrupting the existing equilibrium in Sino-U.S. ties.