High-level exchanges in international diplomacy at the leadership level are carefully choreographed. The very first phone conversation between the US President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on Thursday was no exception.
Two things stand out. First, the call itself came through only after it dawned on Trump and his advisors that an affirmation of the “One china policy”, the bedrock of the Sino-American relationship, would pave the way for the conversation — and that “the costs of not doing so could bring greater than costs than benefits,” as China’s Xinhua News Agency cryptically put it.
The White House readout says, “President Trump agreed, at the request of President Xi, to honor our “one China” policy.” In the Chinese account, Xi told Trump during the phone conversation that he “appreciated” the latter “for stressing that the US government adheres to the one-China policy.”
But the divergent interpretations already belong to an old curiosity shop. Both Washington and Beijing are manifestly eager to project the Trump-Xi conversation in positive terms. The White House singled out that the conversation was “exceedingly cordial” and that the two leaders “look forward to further talks with very successful outcomes.”
The second aspect is about the timing of Trump’s call to XI. In a stunning coincidence, Trump made the call just as Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, was arriving in Washington on an official visit. Mere coincidence? It’s hard to tell.
At any rate, in diplomatic terms, Trump may have “de-hypenated” the US’ respective relationships with China and Japan, which of course leaves Washington free to pursue independent tracks at the bilateral level leading to Beijing and Japan with a view to optimally take care of American interests and concerns. This is one thing.
Simply put, Washington took care in advance to put in proper perspective what was to follow on the day after Trump’s conversation with Xi — his talks with Abe in the White House.
The joint statement issued after the talks with Abe, in fact, contains a robust reaffirmation of the US-Japan Alliance in all its dimensions in the security and defense fields, including the applicability of Article V of the US-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security to the disputed Senkaku Islands in East China Sea and a categorical warning that the two countries “oppose any unilateral action that seeks to undermine Japan’s administration of these islands.”
On the other hand, the Xinhua’s dispatch on the phone conversation on Thursday highlights that Trump displayed the “willingness to expand US-China cooperation and develop a constructive bilateral relationship.”
Xi has been quoted as stressing the imperatives of mutually beneficial cooperation and the common responsibility of the two countries “to strengthen cooperation and coordination” in international and regional affairs and “to jointly safeguard world peace and stability.”
The Xinhua report flags the two leaders’ “eagerness to hold a meeting at an early date.” The big question is whether Trump will decide to attend the One Belt One Road summit in China in May, where XI will play host.
Significantly, the US-Japan joint statement noted that Trump has conclusively abandoned Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, and is seeking a bilateral trade framework between US and Japan. Effectively, there is no counterpoint now to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which China has been promoting.
Equally, the US-Japan joint statement made only a perfunctory “call on countries concerned to avoid actions that would escalate tensions in the South China Sea, including the militarization of outposts, and to act in accordance with international law.”
All these taken together, the conclusion becomes unavoidable that Trump has given a quiet burial to the “pivot to Asia”. This will have major consequences for the Asia-Pacific region and global politics.
To be sure, capitals as far apart as Moscow, New Delhi and Canberra, will take note this weekend that a period of bilateral engagement between the US and China is commencing and both sides are approaching it in constructive spirit.
The Xinhua dispatch visualizes that a comprehensive US-China engagement is on the anvil, where Beijing aspires to be a partner for the US in tackling global issues as well as regional and international security.
Xi stressed the increasing “necessity and urgency of strengthening China-US cooperation … in the face of the current complicated international situation and various challenges.” He proposed that the two countries “can complement each other and promote each other.”
Xinhua at no point mentioned Xi as having referred to China’s desire for a “new type of major-power relations” with the US, a Chinese concept often voiced during the Obama era, which generated much angst among the US and its regional allies regarding an invidious Chinese plot to promote a false narrative of the US’ weakness and China’s inevitable rise.
What the omission of the controversial concept from Xi’s first step toward engaging with Trump signifies remains to be seen. Possibly, China sees that in any case in Trump’s perception, US thinks it is unrealistic to believe it can dominate Asia, as it has done for the last 60 years, and a shift in the distribution of power is becoming inevitable.
On the other hand, it may be unwise also for China to attempt to force the US out of Asia, even while seeking to increase its own influence in the region. China cannot but be conscious of its severe limitations to comprehensively compete against the US at least for another quarter century.
China’s priority will be that the two countries remain sensitive to each other’s core interests, managing and controlling their differences and moments of tension, and ensuring that the long-term trajectory of the bilateral relationship is not jeopardized or disrupted due to an overblown crisis or sheer misunderstanding.
There is a Chinese saying, “Seeking common ground while preserving differences,” which would mean that it may not always be possible to find solutions to mutual problems. The judicious thing would be to shelve the differences and train the mind on common interests where progress is achievable.
Can it be that a new power structure is struggling to be born in Asia? The time may have come, finally, for the provocative thought expounded by the well-known Australian scholar-diplomat Hugh White in his incisive, groundbreaking book The China Choice (2012) — America’s best option is to share power with China and relinquish its supremacy in Asia.