U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday called his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, reaffirming Washington's support for the 'One China' policy, which rejects formal independence for separately ruled Taiwan.
Trump's call has ended weeks of suspense after he said in a media interview after his election last year that the policy might be used as a bargaining trip to put pressure on the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
"Trump stressed that he fully understood the high importance of the US administration's pursuance of the one-China policy," state news agency Xinhua reported on Friday.
"The U.S. administration adheres to pursuing the one-China policy."
China's media, which are tightly controlled by the government, were warned off criticizing Trump ahead of his inauguration, amid growing uncertainty in Beijing over the line the new administration would take.
Trump had previously taken a phone call from Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen congratulating him on his election victory, and vowed to impose high tariffs on Chinese goods.
While the Chinese Communist Party has never ruled Taiwan, it regards the island as a province of China awaiting reunification, and has threatened to invade if its democratic government seeks formal statehood.
Beijing routinely objects to any high-level contact between its diplomatic partners and the authorities in Taiwan.
However, the majority of people in Taiwan have no interest in being ruled by Beijing, and there is broad political support in the island for continued self-rule, if not formal independence.
Liang Yunxiang, foreign affairs professor at Beijing University, said Trump must have been "speaking as an individual" during the media interview, which was made before his inauguration on Jan. 20.
"Now he has taken office, he will have to consider the entirety of the U.S. national interest, and his team members, including the U.S. State Department, will have been working hard for him on this," Liang said.
He said he doesn't see any major changes in U.S. policy towards China on the horizon.
"I don't think they want to cause trouble with China, and we will gradually see a return to traditional U.S. China policy," Liang said.
'Unsafe' encounter in South China Sea
Trump's call to Xi came after a U.S. Navy reconnaissance aircraft and a Chinese military plane were involved in an “unsafe” encounter in international airspace over the disputed South China Sea, the U.S. Pacific Command said on Friday.
The U.S. Navy P-3C was on a “routine mission” over the waters on Wednesday when it flew within 1,000 feet (300 meters) of a Chinese military KJ-200 aircraft near the disputed Scarborough Shoal region some 230 km (140 miles) from the Philippine coast, media reports said.
However, there appeared to have been no mention of the incident during the presidential phone call, according to Xinhua's account.
Xi Jinping congratulated Trump on officially becoming U.S. president, thanked him for his letter of Feb. 8 and for extending festival greetings on Lantern Festival and on the Year of the Rooster of the Chinese Lunar Year, the agency said.
Xi also "expressed high appreciation" for Trump's constructive approach to bilateral ties, it said.
Both sides committed to strengthening cooperation in economy and trade, investment and international affairs, to their mutual benefit, it said.
They also pledged to "jointly help maintain peace and stability in the world," and planned to meet in person "sooner rather than later," Xinhua said.
Military analyst Huang Dong said 300 meters "wasn't really very close" for a fighter aircraft.
"I don't think this means that China won't be sending bigger aircraft or even drones to the region to escort [U.S. planes] away, though," Huang said.
"It might even send an aircraft carrier to the South China Sea, with carrier-based or other specialized aircraft for escort purposes."
The Xi-Trump phone call came ahead of talks between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Trump at the White House on Friday, which are expected to include discussion of islands claimed by China as the Diaoyu Islands and by Tokyo as the Senkaku Islands.
Trump is expected to confirm the U.S. position that the Senkakus are within the scope of its bilateral security treaty with Japan.
Trump's comments on the One China policy came after four decades of consensus between Beijing and Washington that Taiwan, where the defeated Kuomintang nationalist government fled after losing a civil war to Mao Zedong's communists in 1949, is part of a single, Chinese territory, but currently under a different government.
'Complex and difficult'
Beijing's Taiwan Affairs Office spokesman An Fengshan described relations across the Taiwan Strait as "complex and difficult" on Thursday.
"China will continue to use the rule of law to protect its sovereignty and its territorial integrity," An told journalists.
"We will never allow any individual, organization or political party to separate any part of Chinese territory away from China, at any time," he said.
Taiwan political commentator Yang Sen-hong said President Tsai has been under constant pressure to recognize a 1992 consensus agreement between cross-straits negotiators that underpins the One China Policy.
"Ever since Tsai Ing-wen was elected, the [Chinese government] has been threatening all sorts of earth-shattering consequences, or at least some kind of action if she doesn't accept the 1992 consensus," Yang said.
"They are ... flexing their muscles for a domestic audience, showing people that they still take a strong line [on Taiwan]," he said.
"I think we can reasonably speculate that [Xi Jinping] is laying the political groundwork to enable the 19th Party Congress [later this year] to pass off without a hitch," Yang said.
Taiwan-based Chinese dissident Gong Yujian said Beijing's saber-rattling on Taiwan will just alienate the island's 23 million residents further, however.
"It doesn't matter what laws they pass ... in the end they'll just be shooting themselves in the foot," Gong said.
"The more laws they make, the more they will harm relations with the people of Taiwan, especially the younger generation."
Taiwan's 23 million people have never been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party, but they travel to mainland China under special permits that describe the democratic island as a province of China.
Beijing refuses to establish ties with any country that doesn't withdraw diplomatic recognition from Taipei.
Shortly after Tsai called Trump, Chinese authorities barred travel by Taiwanese tour groups to Tibet.
Reported by Ding Wenqi for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Goh Fung for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.