Trump’s Decision to Honor the One-China Policy: How Best to Explain It?
Photo Credit: RAND Corporation
By John F. Copper

Trump’s Decision to Honor the One-China Policy: How Best to Explain It?

Mar. 08, 2017  |     |  0 comments

On the evening of February 9, 2017, in a telephone conversation with China’s President Xi Jinping, US President Donald Trump made a volte-face from his previous statements and pledged to honor America’s one-China policy. According to the White House, Trump’s decision was made at President Xi’s request.


In any event, President Trump’s change of heart (or policy) appeared to erase the hostile disposition of US-China relations that had followed his telephone call from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen in early December 2016 and his subsequent statements to the effect the one-China policy was not necessarily his policy and furthermore was negotiable.


It may be that Trump’s tête-à-tête with Xi was more important than simply the two leaders resolving the one-China issue — though that was certainly important. It included the two leaders inviting each other to visit their country. It seemed to represent détente following more than a month of hostile exchanges. It could be lasting.


How does one account for Trump’s turnaround?


The US media and various pundits explained that Donald Trump’s hostility towards China prior to his becoming president was campaign rhetoric to be discarded once he had been in office for a while. This follows the example of previous presidents.


Alternatively, President Trump’s new persona may reflect the fact that after some thinking he grasped the reality that China is vitally important to him and to the United States. China is the world’s second largest economy and its largest trading nation, the holder of more than a trillion dollars in US debt, the planet’s major provider of economic help to developing countries, and the dominant global builder (which Trump could certainly appreciate).


Another explanation is that Trump had sought to convey the message that he would not be bullied by China as Barack Obama and some other US presidents had been. And he accomplished that. Some of his critics had depicted Trump as a novice and therefore weak in foreign affairs — he needed to correct that impression as well, and to some extent he did.


President Xi’s situation also provides some explanation.


Xi grasped the logic behind Trump’s earlier questioning one-China and his now accepting it. China had taken advantage of Barack Obama when he became president and that did not end well. The Western media hated Trump and sought to ambush him on foreign policy issues; Trump needed to show some mettle. The Western media also disliked Xi and China so President Xi knew what that was about.


China’s president also faces some vexing domestic problems: a slowing economy, local government and corporate debt (which the International Monetary Fund warned risked sparking a serious crisis), money flight from China, the stalling of reforms (including Xi’s anti-corruption drive that witnessed pushback from local governments), and more. Plus, he is preparing for a landmark Chinese Communist Party congress in a few months. A continuing feud with Trump in this context will be an unwanted distraction.


President Xi certainly wanted to avoid trade problems with the United States. A trade war would hurt everyone; though it would probably hurt China more than the United States. He appreciated Trump’s complaints about the unsustainable US trade deficit with China and Trump’s demand that China do something to rein in North Korea.


But these explanations may be too simplistic…


Certainly, there is more to say about Trump-Xi relations, their understanding (and sympathies) of each other, and their — in many ways — similar worldviews.


The day that Donald Trump took the famous (or infamous) telephone call from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen that set in motion his questioning the one-China policy and several weeks of strained Sino-American relations, Trump met with Henry Kissinger. Kissinger then departed on a trip to China. After he returned the two met again.


One rendering of the first Trump-Kissinger get-together followed by Kissinger’s meeting with President Xi was that Kissinger was a go-between or mediator. He advised Xi on Trump’s situation, the reasons for his speaking to President Tsai and his motives for challenging the one-China policy. He suggested Xi not take Trump’s talk too seriously and to “bark back” if he wished (Trump expected it), and that relations would be fine after a short period of tension.


This had a background and there was reason behind Trump’s otherwise apparently reckless talk and actions.


Kissinger had written about the pending failure-cum-collapse of the international order in his book World Order.1 He propounded on the importance of working US-China relations to prevent a system breakdown. Xi had written something similar in his book The Governance of China.2 Trump had called the global system unsustainable. All three seemed to be on the same page.


Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said to be the conscience of US government officials in charge of foreign policy, offered a strong supporting opinion. In a just published book, The World in Disarray, Haass wrote of “one historical era ending and another beginning.”3


Indeed, the post-World War II “other world order” (Communism had perished, but it didn’t) or the Western “liberal democratic global system,” whose ingredients were free trade, almost universal economic and social development, progress in human rights, a major functional role for the United Nations and other international institutions, respect for international law, and nuclear non-proliferation, was now dying.


What is to supplant Haass’s other world order?


President Trump’s idea is that the inevitable shift to a new world order will not be evolutionary; it has to be profound, even revolutionary. Moreover, it could best grow out of turmoil or crisis. One analyst described Trump’s method as “calculated chaos.”


President Xi could certainly understand this. It was the way his party had come to power in China. It was Deng Xiaoping’s method of reforming China’s economic and political systems after Mao Zedong died. Chinese were taught this when they studied China’s history.


Could Trump and Xi cooperate to create a new global order? It seems they could.


President Xi has recently moved to correct the trade imbalance with the United States — preliminarily at least. He has taken some strong actions against North Korea, as Trump said he should. President Trump dumped former president Obama’s policy of trying to isolate-cum-contain China by appealing to other countries not to support China’s number one global building project, the new Silk Road and its attendant maritime “road,” or China’s financial organizations designed to promote global economic development. Trump seeks to build with China, not against China.


Trump and Xi are likeminded in terms of the paramount actors in the coming new international order: China and the United States. Europe, Japan, and Russia are declining powers and will play but marginal roles — though Russia due to its strategic power (nuclear weapons) may be an exception.


The world is thus headed towards a fresh (or revised) bipolarity, even though China and many others applaud the coming of a multipolar world that is not in the cards. Nor is it desirable. As Haass notes, it is too complicated. Certainly, if power balancing is to be a critical element of a multipolar system, it would not appear to be able to function well given a host of asymmetries, including the fact that in military power terms Europe has little to no influence on China.


Clearly, Trump’s election victory and his perspective of creating chaos to clear the path to important (and historic) decisions comport with the view that the current world order is about to end. Some historians, in fact, view Trump’s election victory as introducing a “permanent shift” and even the creation of a new America as happened in 1828 under President Andrew Jackson, in 1860 with Lincoln, in 1896 and William McKinley, and 1932 because of FDR. Times changed as conditions required but leaders made it happen.


There is a parallel case to be made for China. Xi Jinping is a seminal president. He has given himself new powers and has orchestrated a new strongman leader style of rule to supplant collective leadership. This comes at a critical time when China is at a fork in the road and must decide whether to fully challenge the current world order and make a genuine bid for global leadership. In fact, Xi has apparently made this move. Recently he vowed to lead the “new world order.”


President Xi seeks to realize the “China dream” he has talked a lot about. He wants to restore China’s past splendor.


Who are Donald Trump’s models? Andrew Jackson? Both railed against the elite establishment and changed the course of US history. The establishment reviled both. Jackson was a “leader for the common man” president; so is Trump. But President Jackson reigned a long time ago and there is much dissimilarity between then and now.


Some say President Nixon, who made a difference with a unique foreign policy strategy. But current conditions are not very much like 1969. President Reagan? Reagan orchestrated the end of the Cold War. But challenging the liberal world order now is a different animal.


Harvard University historian Niall Ferguson suggests Trump’s mentor is Theodore Roosevelt.4 President Roosevelt fought against corruption in Washington, DC. He was an individualist with a plan, a nationalist who sought to promote America’s greatness, an advocate of the balance of power, and a power broker. He was a builder (Panama Canal). He saw the UK as a close ally and a friend.


Teddy Roosevelt had no regard for the liberal world order that praised peace treaties and international organizations that built collective security on expensive American obligations. International order, to Roosevelt, was to be based on strong leaders and regional blocs led by great men.


Coincidently, or not, President Xi is viewed by some to be a modern Teddy Roosevelt.5 He is battling corruption in government as Roosevelt did. He is a navy man. He admires Admiral Mahan. He seeks to make China a regional power through maritime power while conceding influence to the US (as Roosevelt did to the British navy) elsewhere at least for a while.


A US-China “relationship” (the world being a Sino-American condominium, a reconstructed bipolar system, or whatever) has much to say for itself. It has been talked about already. The terms Chinamerica and G-2 reflect that.


It would marginalize Europe and Japan, which seems inevitable anyway. Such a system would focus attention on critical world order issues. It would be effective in dealing with terrorism, which is the scourge of both countries and the world. It would unlikely oversee a world war; it might well prevent one. Washington-Beijing cooperation based on the mutual recognition of China’s financial superiority and America’s military dominance represents realism. Collaboration would also help make the arrangement work.


Perhaps the problems of a crumbling world order can be resolved in this way. That would be a good thing. President Trump’s accepting the one-China perspective is a beginning.




1. Henry Kissinger (2014). World Order. New York: Penguin.


2. Xi Jinping (2014). The Governance of China. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.


3. Richard Haass (2017). A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order. New York: Penguin, p. 54.


4. Niall Ferguson (November 21, 2016). Donald Trump’s new world order. American Interest. Retrieved from


5. James Holmes (November 4, 2014). Beijing’s rough rider: Is Xi Jinping China’s Teddy Roosevelt?” National Interest. Retrieved from



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