News analysis

China's anxieties reduced, but uncertainty remains

US adherence to 'one China' policy a positive sign, but trade and security issues loom large

The phone call between US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping took a long time to come because the new administration was pondering over how to deal with America's relations with China, as an analyst put it.

But it could also be that Beijing drove a hard bargain during the discussion on the contents of the call, particularly on the issue of the "one China" policy, a cornerstone of bilateral ties since both sides established formal relations in 1979.

What is clear is that Mr Trump and his team have made a decision to adhere to the "one China" policy, paving the way for bilateral ties to develop, though challenges remain.

Mr Trump had, as president-elect, questioned the "one China" policy - in which Washington recognises Beijing as the sole government of China - suggesting that he might use it as a bargaining chip to gain concessions from China.

This had angered Beijing, which saw the policy - in which the United States also acknowledges China's position that there is only one China and that both the mainland and Taiwan belong to that one China - as non-negotiable.

"The 'one China' policy is a bottom line (for China). It is the basis for establishing diplomatic ties and the precondition for the development of political and other ties between the two sides," explained Professor Jia Qingguo, dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University.

He noted that preceding US governments, Republican or Democratic, adhered to it because it was in the US' interests to do so. "Of course, it also conforms to China's interests," he added.

The Trump administration needed to make a decision on the issue "in order to cooperate with China bilaterally, regionally and globally, and to protect its interests", he said. But while an obstacle to the development of bilateral ties has been removed, many other problems must be dealt with, he added. These include Mr Trump's threat to declare China a currency manipulator and impose heavy tariffs on Chinese goods, as well as security issues.

But analysts agree that the other challenges are more manageable.

"Trade issues are easier for Beijing to engage in negotiation on and to even consider concessions," said Associate Professor Li Mingjiang of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Agreeing, Peking University's Professor Zha Daojiong said this was not the first time that the two sides have had disputes over trade, and that they could go through due process of settlement via the World Trade Organisation.

As for the South China Sea issue, about which Mr Trump and his team had made strident remarks, particularly over China's building of artificial islands on reefs it controls, their recent statements have been less provocative, noted Prof Li.

Earlier remarks - US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said during his confirmation hearing last month that China should not be allowed access to the artificial islands - showed the Trump administration did not understand the region's security issues. Then, last Saturday, US Defence Secretary James Mattis said in Tokyo that there was no need for "dramatic military moves", and instead called for "diplomatic efforts" to resolve the South China Sea disputes. The new statements show that the team now has a better understanding of regional security issues, said Prof Li. These statements were also reassuring for the Chinese.

Still, while China's anxieties have been reduced somewhat, concerns remain as there is still much uncertainty surrounding the Trump administration, he added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 11, 2017, with the headline 'China's anxieties reduced, but uncertainty remains'. Print Edition | Subscribe