Did Trump embolden China by caving on their "One China" policy?

A follow-up to Andrew Malcolm’s post this morning. Some China hawks, excited by Trump’s early flirtation with greater independence for Taiwan, are not only palpably disappointed that he’s now backed off of that but fear that the concession he’s made will encourage Chinese aggression. Gordon Chang:

“It’s a wise move that sets the basis for Trump and Xi to address the myriad challenges on the U.S.-China agenda,” Evan Medeiros, a high-ranking Obama Asia adviser, told the Financial Times.

Medeiros is right that the acceptance allows dealings between Beijing and Washington to go forward, but it is hardly “wise.”…

In what was a test of will, the Chinese will surely believe they have scored a quick victory. Trump, therefore, has fed their sense of power and arrogance—and American weakness. Beijing, as a result, is bound to become even more difficult to deal with.

A former head of the American Chamber of Commerce in China told Reuters that game-playing with the “One China” policy is a big threat to make if you’re not deadly serious about following through on it. Which, it seems, Trump wasn’t:

“There is certainly a way of negotiating with the Chinese, but threats concerning fundamental, core interests are counterproductive from the get-go,” he said in an email.

“The end result is that Trump just confirmed to the world that he is a paper tiger, a ‘zhilaohu’ – someone that seems threatening but is wholly ineffectual and unable to stomach a challenge.”

Point taken, but remember that the “One China” concession comes on the very day that Trump is hosting Chinese nemesis Shinzo Abe in a show of fraternity between the U.S. and Japan, replete with golf together in Florida. It would be one thing if he had caved at a moment when China was making demands of him; it’s another thing to extend an olive branch at the very moment he’s reaffirming his commitment in a highly public way to a Chinese enemy. The effect of that, it seems to me, is to show the Chinese that the U.S. is prepared to work with them on core interests like “One China,” but that if they challenge the U.S. or its core allies, “One China” might quickly come back onto the table. More from the Fiscal Times:

The decision to speak to Mr Xi on the eve of the Trump-Abe summit was designed to reduce the fallout from the lavish welcome planned for the Japanese leader. Mr Abe will dine with Mr Trump four times, fly on Air Force One to the president’s resort in Florida, and play a round of golf with his US counterpart.

“The significance of this phone call before the visit of Prime Minister Abe cannot be overstated,” said Dennis Wilder, a former top China analyst at the CIA now at Georgetown University. “The Chinese had sought reassurance that President Trump did not intend to overturn a fundamental principle underpinning US-China relations and north-east Asian geostrategic stability for the past four decades — the One China policy.”

Trump simultaneously normalized relations with China, which is useful for securing their cooperation on North Korea, while signaling his preference for Japan. Together, those moves could serve to keep the Chinese off-balance and wary of antagonizing the United States: Trump is demonstrating that he’s willing to make nice, but as they’ve seen before in his outreach to Taipei, things could go sour in a hurry. The takeaway is that they should be conciliatory, not aggressive. Or at least that’s how it would seem to me.

Here’s the latest this afternoon, a reaffirmation of Trump’s commitment to Japanese rights to the islands currently under dispute with China:

If that announcement had come with the “One China” question still unsettled, the Chinese might have interpreted it as a sign that America under Trump was prepared to test them more aggressively than they expected. Having come after Trump’s “One China” concession, it takes on a different complexion, more like business as usual. As I say, with North Korea’s missile reach looming as a major threat to U.S. national security, having some sort of diplomatic relations with China seems like a prudent move. I don’t think the “One China” climbdown is so bad in context.

Here’s today’s Oval Office handshake. Note Abe’s funny reaction at the end.