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China Gets An Early Win Off Trump, But Many Battles Remain

BEIJING (Reuters) – Combining public bluster with behind-the-scenes diplomacy, China wrested a concession from the United States as the two presidents spoke for the first time this week, but Beijing may not be able to derive much comfort from the win on U.S. policy toward Taiwan.

Several areas of disagreement between the superpowers, including currency, trade, the South China Sea, and North Korea, were not mentioned in public statements on Thursday’s telephone conversation between Presidents Xi Jinping and Donald Trump. In getting Trump to change course on the “one China” policy, Beijing may have overplayed its hand.

Trump had upset Beijing before he took office by taking a call from Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, then casting doubt on the “one China” policy, under which Washington acknowledges the Chinese position that there is only one China and Taiwan is part of it.

Trump changed tack and agreed to honor the “one China” policy during the call, prompting jubilation in China. Beijing had been working on diplomatic ways to engage Trump’s team and largely blaming Taiwan for stirring things up.

Laying the foundation for that call had been the low-key engagement of China’s former ambassador to Washington and top diplomat, the urbane and fluent English-speaking Yang Jiechi, with Trump’s national security adviser Michael Flynn.

“China was pragmatic and patient. It made every effort to smooth out the relationship, and it paid off,” said Jia Qingguo, dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University, who has advised the government on foreign policy.

But China also made very clear Taiwan was not up for negotiation, unleashing state media to threaten war and punishment for U.S. firms if that bottom line was breached.

China has long described self-ruled Taiwan, claimed by Beijing as its sacred territory, as the most sensitive issue in Sino-U.S. relations.

Its military had become alarmed after the Trump-Tsai call and was considering strong measures to prevent the island from moving toward independence, sources with ties to senior military officers told Reuters in December.

A source familiar with China’s thinking on relations with the United States, speaking to Reuters last month, said China had actually not been too bothered with Trump’s Taiwan comments before he took office as he was not president then and was only expressing his personal view.

“If he continues with this once he becomes president then there’s no saying what we’ll do,” the source said.

TSAI’S CHILLED HEART

Despite the U.S. concession, military tensions remain.

On Saturday, the overseas edition of the ruling Communist Party’s People’s Daily placed a picture on its front page of Chinese warships about to embark on a new round of drills in the South China Sea, right next to an upbeat commentary about the Xi-Trump call.

The paper’s WeChat account took a harsher line, saying that with Trump getting back with the program on “one China”, Taiwan had better watch out.

“The heart of that Madame Tsai on the other side of the Taiwan Strait must at this moment be chilled to the core,” it said.

One senior Western diplomat said China had been redoubling its efforts to win over the Vatican, one of a handful of countries to retain official ties with Taiwan.

Taiwan says it hopes for continued U.S. support, and one ruling Democratic Progressive Party official told Reuters that the “one China” policy had not affected previous U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, even as U.S. presidents’ commitment to the island have waxed and waned.

Xi has put great personal political capital into seeking a solution over Taiwan, an issue that has festered since 1949 when defeated Nationalist forces fled to the island after losing the civil war to the Communists. China has never renounced the use of force to bring Taiwan under its control.

But in its relations with Washington, the risk for Beijing remains that its diplomatic win over “one China” will be short lived, as Trump will not want to be seen as having caved in.

“What he’s shown the Chinese is he’s willing to touch the ‘third rail’ of U.S.-China relations,” said Dean Cheng, China expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington.

“Beijing can’t predict what he’ll do next – and he’s only been in office three weeks. What is he going to do on trade and other economic issues?”

U.S. officials said the affirmation of the “one China” policy was an effort to get the relationship back on track and moving forward.

But Trump’s change of tack may be seen by Beijing as a climbdown, said Tom Rafferty, the China Regional Manager for the Economist Intelligence Unit.

“Mr Trump is erratic and will not appreciate the suggestion that he has been weak.”

(Additional reporting by Michael Martina, and J.R. Wu in Taipei and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

IMAGE: A combination of file photos showing Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) at London’s Heathrow Airport, October 19, 2015 and U.S. President Donald Trump posing for a photo in New York City, U.S., May 17, 2016. REUTERS/Toby Melville/Lucas Jackson/File Photos

China Returns Underwater Drone, U.S. Condemns ‘Unlawful’ Seizure

BEIJING (Reuters) – China has returned a U.S. underwater drone taken by one of its naval vessels in the disputed South China Sea last week after what it said were friendly talks with the United States, which reiterated its criticism of the “unlawful” seizure.

The taking of the unmanned underwater vehicle in international waters near the Philippines triggered a diplomatic protest and speculation about whether it would strengthen U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s hand as he seeks a tougher line with China.

A Chinese naval ship took the drone, which the Pentagon says uses unclassified, commercially available technology to collect oceanographic data, on Thursday about 50 nautical miles northwest of Subic Bay in the Philippines.

China’s defense ministry said in a brief statement the drone had been given back to the United States on Tuesday.

“After friendly consultations between the Chinese and U.S. sides, the handover work for the U.S. underwater drone was smoothly completed in relevant waters in the South China Sea at midday,” the ministry said.

The defense ministry declined to give more details about the handover when contacted by Reuters.

The Pentagon said the vehicle had been handed over to the guided missile destroyer USS Mustin near where it had been “unlawfully seized”. It called on China to comply with international law and refrain from further efforts to impede lawful U.S. activities.

“The U.S. remains committed to upholding the accepted principles and norms of international law and freedom of navigation and overflight and will continue to fly, sail, and operate in the South China Sea wherever international law allows,” Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said in a statement.

Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying referred questions about the handover and other details of the case to the defense ministry.

“The handling of this incident shows that the Chinese and U.S. militaries have quite smooth communication channels. We think that this communication channel is beneficial to timely communication and the handling of sudden incidents and prevention of miscalculations and misunderstandings,” she said.

“As to what the U.S. defense department said, I have to verify it with the military. But I think what they said is unreasonable as we have always said that for a long time the U.S. military has regularly sent ships and aircraft to carry out close up surveillance and military surveys in waters facing China, which threatens China’s sovereignty and security,” Hua told reporters.

“China is resolutely opposed to this and has always demanded the U.S. end these kinds of activities. I think this is the cause of this or similar incidents.”

The seizure has added to U.S. concern about China’s growing military presence and aggressive posture in the disputed South China Sea, including its militarization of maritime outposts.

China is deeply suspicious of any U.S. military activity in the resource-rich South China Sea, with state media and experts saying the use of the drone was likely part of U.S. surveillance efforts in the disputed waterway.

The U.S. Navy has about 130 such underwater drones, made by Teledyne Webb, each weighing about 60 kg (130 lb) and able to stay underwater for up to five months. They are used around the world to collect unclassified data about oceans, including temperature and depth.

It is not clear how many are used in the South China Sea.

(Editing by Paul Tait and Lincoln Feast)

IMAGE: The USNS Bowditch, an oceanographic survey ship, is seen in this undated U.S. Navy handout photo.  U.S. Navy via REUTERS

China Lodges ‘Stern’ Protest After Trump Call With Taiwan President

BEIJING/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – China lodged a diplomatic protest on Saturday after U.S. President-elect Donald Trump spoke by phone with President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan, but blamed the self-ruled island Beijing claims as its own for the “petty” move.

The 10-minute telephone call with Taiwan’s leadership was the first by a U.S. president-elect or president since President Jimmy Carter switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 1979, acknowledging Taiwan as part of “one China”.

China’s Foreign Ministry said it had lodged “stern representations” with what it called the “relevant U.S. side”, urging the careful handling of the Taiwan issue to avoid any unnecessary disturbances in ties.

“The one China principle is the political basis of the China-U.S. relationship,” it said.

The wording implied the protest had gone to the Trump camp, but the ministry provided no explanation.

Speaking earlier, hours after Friday’s telephone call, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi pointedly blamed Taiwan for the exchange, rather than Trump, a billionaire businessman with little foreign policy experience.

“This is just the Taiwan side engaging in a petty action, and cannot change the ‘one China’ structure already formed by the international community,” Wang said at an academic forum in Beijing, China’s Foreign Ministry quoted him as saying.

“I believe that it won’t change the longstanding ‘one China’ policy of the United States government.”

In comments at the same forum, Wang noted how quickly President Xi Jinping and Trump had spoken by telephone after Trump’s victory, and that Trump had praised China as a great country.

Wang said that exchange had sent “a very positive signal about the future development of Sino-U.S. relations”, according to the ministry’s website. Taiwan was not mentioned in that call, according to an official Chinese transcript.

China’s Taiwan Affairs Office also called the conversation a “petty” move by Taiwan that does not change the island’s status as part of China. Beijing is resolute in opposing independence for Taiwan, it added.

Trump said on Twitter that Tsai had initiated the call he had with the Taiwan president. “The President of Taiwan CALLED ME today to wish me congratulations on winning the Presidency. Thank you!” he said.

Alex Huang, a spokesman for Tsai, said: “Of course both sides agreed ahead of time before making contact.”

Trump and Tsai noted that “close economic, political and security ties exist between Taiwan and the United States”, the Trump transition team said in a statement. Taiwan’s presidential office said the two discussed strengthening bilateral interactions and establishing closer cooperation.

China considers Taiwan a wayward province and has never renounced the use of force to bring it under its control. Relations between the two sides have worsened since Tsai, who heads the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, was elected president in January.

Chinese state media downplayed the possibility of a major blow-up in Beijing’s relations with Washington as Trump prepares to assume office.

Influential state-run tabloid the Global Times said in an online editorial that if Trump really overturned the “one China” principle upon assuming office it would create such a crisis with China he’d have little time to do anything else.

“We believe this is not something the shrewd Trump wants to do.”

China’s official Xinhua news agency said Trump needed to know Beijing can be a “cooperative partner” as long as Washington respects China’s core interests, including the issue of Taiwan.

“China and the United States are not destined rivals,” it said in an English-language commentary.

Washington remains Taiwan’s most important political ally and sole arms supplier, despite the lack of formal diplomatic ties, the irony of which was not lost on Trump.

“Interesting how the U.S. sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call,” Trump said in another tweet.

Trump has eschewed tradition in other calls with foreign leaders since he won the U.S. election, prompting the White House to encourage him to make use of the diplomatic expertise and counsel of the State Department.

Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway said on CNN that Trump was “well aware of what U.S. policy has been” on Taiwan.

Administration officials said Trump’s team did not alert the White House about the call ahead of time. The White House also said after Trump’s call that “longstanding policy” on China and Taiwan had not changed.

Advisers to the Republican president-elect have indicated that he is likely to take a more robust policy toward China than Obama, a Democrat, and that Trump plans to boost the U.S. military in part in response to China’s increasing power in Asia. However, details of his plans remain scant.

Trump lambasted China throughout the U.S. election campaign, drumming up headlines with pledges to slap 45 percent tariffs on imported Chinese goods and label the country a currency manipulator on his first day in office.

Earlier this week, Trump spoke to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and praised him, according to the Pakistani leader’s office, as a “terrific guy”.

Islamabad and Washington have seen relations sour in recent years over U.S. accusations that Pakistan shelters Islamist militants who kill U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, a charge denied by the South Asian nation.

Trump also invited Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte to the White House next year during what a Duterte aide said was a “very engaging, animated” phone conversation. Duterte has openly insulted Obama, who canceled a planned meeting with him in September.

A statement issued by Trump’s transition team made no mention of the invitation.

(Additional reporting by Valerie Volcovici, David Alexander, Yara Bayoumy, John Walcott, Arshad Mohammed, Eric Beech, Jeff Mason and JR Wu; Writing by Jeff Mason and Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing by Nick Macfie)