Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Trump broke the ice in a late night phone call Thursday. It was the leaders' first conversation since Trump took office on Jan. 20.
China has been so upset because ... ?
The countries fell out over Trump's questioning of the "One China" policy, which has governed the Chinese relationship with Taiwan for 37 years.
The U.S. recognition of a "One China" policy stems from 1979, when the U.S. switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan's Republic of China to the People's Republic of China (PRC).
Trump broke with years of diplomatic protocol following his election when he accepted a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen and again riled the Chinese when, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal in January, he said: "Everything is under negotiation, including One China."
From the Chinese perspective, that policy is non-negotiable.
OK, so, what is the One China policy?
In the 1979 U.S.-P.R.C. Joint Communique, the United States recognized the communist leadership in Beijing as the sole legal government of China, acknowledging the Chinese position that there is one China and Taiwan is a breakaway province that is part of China.
"The Taiwan question bears on China's sovereignty and territorial integrity and touches our core interests," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said last month. "Adherence to the one China principle serves as the political foundation for the development of China-U.S. ties. If this foundation is wobbled and weakened, then there is no possibility for the two countries to grow their relations in a sound and steady way and cooperate on key areas."
Does the U.S. back an independent Taiwan?
Officially, the U.S. government does not support independence for Taiwan, now a democracy that elects its own president and parliament.
U.S. relations with the island are governed by the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which outlines the U.S. commitment to help Taiwan maintain its military defense. Last year, the U.S. approved $1.8 billion in arms sales to Taipei.
If a phone call was a faux pas, how does America usually talk to Taipei?
Washington maintains unofficial relations with Taiwan through the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), a de facto embassy that implements U.S. policy, facilitates trade and issues visas. Similarly, Taiwan maintains a de facto embassy in Washington, D.C., through its Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO).
Trade between the U.S. and Taiwan is robust: The U.S. is Taiwan's second-largest trading partner and Taiwan ranks as the ninth-largest trading partner for the U.S. According to the State Department, companies from Taiwan employ more than 12,000 workers in the United States.
For Taiwan, the lack of diplomatic recognition by the U.S. and most other nations means that it cannot belong to international organizations, such as the United Nations, that require statehood as a condition of membership. Tsai cannot make official visits to the U.S. and has not been invited as an official delegate to U.S. events, such as presidential inaugurations.
Donald Trump decides to honor the “One China” policy
It turns out Donald Trump may not be looking for a fight with China after all.
Just weeks after questioning a cornerstone of Washington’s diplomatic relationship with Beijing, Trump used a Thursday night phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping to say that he would honor the so-called “One China” policy that has kept ties between the two superpowers on an even keel since 1979.
In December, Trump had raised doubts about his commitment to the agreement — and infuriated many in Beijing — by speaking by phone with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. That was a big deal in diplomatic circles because no US president had spoken to a Taiwanese leader in decades due to the One China policy. The policy acknowledges Beijing’s stance that it alone represents China’s national government and that the island of Taiwan is a breakaway province that belongs to China. All of Trump’s recent predecessors had only unofficial diplomatic ties with Taiwan, and Trump’s direct conversation with Tsai broke with that practice.
Trump escalated things further when, a few days later, he refused to apologize for the call or back away from his apparent belief that the One China policy wasn’t set in stone.
"I fully understand the One China policy, but I don't know why we have to be bound by a One China policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade," Trump said.
At the time, Trump also correctly noted that the US sells billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment to Taiwan. China doesn’t like that either — but it’s not considered a violation of the One China policy.
Beijing pushed back swiftly against Trump, indicating that scuttling One China was a non-option and declaring that if the policy was ever placed on the negotiating table, talks over all other issues would immediately end.
As the Washington Post notes, it’s hard to say if Trump got anything in return for what amounts to a near-concession after his tough talk on dropping the One China policy. Rhetoric on China’s side was vague as well. “The development of China and the United States can complement each other and promote each other, and the two countries are totally capable of becoming good cooperative partners,” Xi said, according to the state news agency Xinhua.
Why Beijing is so committed to the One China policy
For the Chinese government, preserving One China wasn’t just about diplomacy, but also about protecting its own legitimacy against nationalists always on the lookout for signs the country is being disrespected or bullied by the US.
Recent statements from Trump’s team have only added to their concern. During his confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hinted at the idea of setting up a blockade against China’s navy in the South China Sea, which some nationalists in China interpreted as an invitation to war. And reports have emerged that Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon had predicted the US would go to war with China in the South China Sea as recently as nine months ago.
Needless to say, tensions were on the rise in the run up to Trump’s call with Xi, which had been a long time coming. It was the first conversation between the two leaders since Trump took office, and the 19th world leader that the president has spoken to or met with since Inauguration Day.
The call took place one day after Trump first extended his hand to China, when National Security Adviser Michael Flynn hand-delivered a letter to China’s ambassador saying the US was looking forward to building “constructive relations” with China.
The White House said Trump and Xi had a lengthy, wide-ranging talk that was “extremely cordial,” and that both leaders invited each other for a visit. The readout of the call contained no substantive details except this: “President Trump agreed, at the request of President Xi, to honor our ‘one China’ policy.”
There’s a very good chance that Trump realized that gambling on using the One China policy as a bargaining chip was too risky, given how adamant Beijing was that it could potentially end up causing a severing of ties between them. There’s also the fact that China is extremely large, extremely powerful, and has a huge web of economic ties with the US — something that explains why it’s easier to talk about reining in China than it is to do something about it.
“Every US president since Nixon has come into office promising to be tough on China, and every single one of them has backed off when they realize the complexity of the situation,” David Kang, a professor of international relations at the University of Southern California, told me during an interview in January.
Trump has shown a tendency to be extraordinarily antagonistic with some of the US’s closest allies, like when he gratuitously insulted the prime minister of Australia. But his first call with China showed uncommon prudence and restraint. It’s also the first call in days that wasn’t immediately followed by key details of the conversation leaking to the press. In other words, it was a double win of sorts for a new president desperately in search of a victory.
Trump agrees to honour 'One China' policy despite threats
US President Donald Trump has climbed down on past threats and agreed to honour the so-called "One China" policy.
He backed the long-standing agreement during a call with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the White House said.
The One China policy states that there is only one Chinese government.
Mr Trump broke with diplomatic norms in December, by accepting a call from the president of Taiwan, considered a breakaway province by China.
As president-elect, Mr Trump also said he saw no reason why the agreement should continue without key concessions from Beijing.
China retaliated to the Taiwan phone call by making an official complaint to the US.
The telephone conversation on Thursday night was the first between the two since Mr Trump took office on 20 January, though the new US president has called several other national leaders.
On Friday, Mr Trump said the conversation was "very warm".
He added: "We had a very, very good talk last night, and discussed a lot of subjects. It was a long talk."
He made the comments during a press conference at the White House with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Who said what?
The White House said a wide range of issues were discussed during the US-China call, which it characterised as "extremely cordial". The two leaders had invited each other to visit, it said.
A statement from Beijing said China appreciated Mr Trump's acknowledgement of the One China policy, calling the two nations "co-operative partners" who could "push bilateral relations to a historic new high".
Taiwan, meanwhile, said it would continue "close contact" with the US, pointing out that maintaining good ties with Washington and Beijing was key to regional stability.
What was at stake?
Mr Trump has caused concern in Beijing with his stance on trade and the South China Sea, but it was his decision to accept a call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen that triggered most alarm.
Though the US is Taiwan's main military ally, no US president or president-elect had spoken directly to a Taiwanese leader for decades.
Under the One China policy, the US recognises and has formal ties with China rather than Taiwan.
Mr Trump had indicated that policy could change, suggesting the US should not abide by One China unless it secured concessions from Beijing on trade.
Comments by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on China's military build-up in the South China Sea further chilled ties. He suggested that the US should block access to artificial islands China is building in disputed waters.
Chinese officials have reacted relatively calmly to remarks from the new administration, though they lodged an official protest over the Taiwan phone call.
But the Taiwan issue is very sensitive, something state media made clear when it accused Mr Trump of "playing with fire".
How did the call happen?
The telephone call followed a letter sent by Mr Trump to Mr Xi on Thursday - the president's first direct approach to the Chinese leader. In it, Mr Trump said he looked forward to "constructive relations".
The New York Times reports that it was hand-delivered to China's ambassador by National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who had also spoken to China's top foreign policy official last week.
There were other signs that the White House was seeking to stabilise ties, such as Ivanka Trump attending a Lunar New Year celebration at the Chinese Embassy in Washington.
At a press briefing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang declined to answer whether Mr Trump's acknowledgement of the One China policy had been a condition of the call.
A win for Beijing? by Carrie Gracie, BBC China editor
The content of the phone call between Mr Trump and Mr Xi will be celebrated in Beijing as signalling a return to the traditional framework of the US-China relationship.
Three weeks into the new American administration, after a score of phone calls between Mr Trump and other world leaders, China's absence from the list was becoming ever more conspicuous.
Many Chinese citizens see Taiwan as the last piece in China's territorial jigsaw. Any further move towards independence and international recognition for the island would have represented a dangerous humiliation for Mr Xi.
With the presidential phone call, Beijing can draw a line under such fears. Three weeks in, it has won a clear and unequivocal commitment from the Trump administration to honour the One China policy.
However, it is not clear what, if anything, the Trump administration has won in return.