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Sino-American normalization / by Sumantra Maitra, February 17, 2017 Adjust font size:

Three months back, in November, I wrote about not giving in to hysteria due to Trump's electoral victory. In the last three months, to be honest, sometimes even I started to question my judgment. But one thing that has always been clear was what international relations theory teaches us. Individual leaders, even when capable and strong, are often bound by the forces of economics and geopolitics, which we call structural barriers and constraints. Structure usually governs human agency. Even during the most trying times, e.g. when Trump had a call with the Taiwanese leader and threatened to unleash a trade war, there was a realistic expectation that Trump would dial back his campaign rhetoric.

Now, three months later, let's recap Trump's presidency and everything that has happened in the past week. Trump wrote a formal and diplomatic letter to the Chinese leadership, wishing them a happy Chinese New Year. There then was a cordial phone call between President Trump and President Xi, wherein the U.S. formally re-acknowledged the existing One China policy. Trump also met with PM Shinzo Abe of Japan and agreed to provide alliance support for Japan.

In short, the world is back to normal.

A White House statement affirmed that Trump and Xi had a phone chat, wherein "President Trump agreed, at the request of President Xi, to honor our 'one China' policy," the statement recorded. The statement also noted that China and U.S. would engage in negotiations and mutual cooperation and quoted Xi as saying that China and the U.S. are complimentary powers.

Let's touch on each issue. Trump's phone call with the Taiwanese leader threatened to destroy the cornerstone of Sino-U.S. foreign policy stability. It might just have been a one-time stunt, as Trump seems highly unlikely to be as politically savvy as Nixon and have his own version of madman theory. Or it might be that, taking advantage of Trump's inexperience, Taiwan scored a political victory through backchannels and lobby groups. Or that someone in Trump's administration turned rogue. We will never know for sure. But what happened was that Trump and China took a step towards belligerence. Added to that was Trump's threats of a trade war.

However, it was, as I pointed out, highly unlikely that Trump would radically change decades of foreign policy, because it would jeopardize American interests. It is unbelievable that Americans would want to risk a war with China in defense of Taiwan. After all, China is much more important to the U.S., and a much bigger competitor. No great power wants confrontation with another great power over a small stretch of land that is realistically insignificant in the broader game. Had it been otherwise, Russia and the U.S. would be having a war now over Eastern Europe. Perhaps sanity prevailed. The Trump administration after all has saner minds, such as Tillerson and Mattis.

In short, Trump's policies now reflect a more traditional approach towards American foreign policy, which includes a measured and balanced foreign policy relationship with China, with a commitment of strength with Asia-Pacific allies.

This means, regardless of what Trump says, whether it is too aggressive or too conciliatory, it is wise not to take his rhetoric at face value; and other powers should be careful to actually observe tangible changes or patterns in the behavior of United States when deciding policy.

Talk is cheap. It is the force of economics and raw military power that decide foreign policy. That's the ultimate truth.

Sumantra Maitra is a columnist with For more information please visit:

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