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Story highlights

Trump threw China relations into doubt after phone call with Taiwanese president

NEW: Taiwan says it will maintain close contact with US

US-China relations have long been governed by "One China" policy

(CNN) —  

US President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping spoke by phone Thursday evening, the first conversation between the two since Trump took office.

In the call, the two leaders discussed “numerous topics,” and Trump committed to honoring the “One China” policy at Xi’s request, the White House said.

Since his election in November, President Trump has challenged Beijing over several issues and, most controversially, upended decades of diplomatic protocol by questioning longstanding American policy towards Taiwan.

China views Taiwan as a breakaway province and, since 1979, the US has acknowledged Beijing’s claim that Taiwan is part of China, with US-China relations governed by the set of protocols known as the “One China” policy.

02:20 - Source: CNN
'One China,' explained

Paul Haenle, director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center based in Beijing, said the call was a positive step that would allow the two countries to address challenges like North Korea and trade relations.

“Trump played with the notion of using this arrangement as leverage, but I think he was convinced – I suspect by the new Secretary of State Rex Tillerson – that this is not where the US administration can get leverage,” said Haenle, a former National Security Council China director under Presidents Bush and Obama.

“The ‘One China’ policy is not a card on the bargaining table — it is the table itself. Taiwan is also a vital US partner and thriving democracy of 23 million people. Its future is not ours to bargain away,” Haenle added.

Prior to taking office, Trump had caused friction in bilateral ties by taking a phone call from Taiwan’s leader Tsai Ing-wen, forcing China to lodge an official complaint and, in a January interview in The Wall Street Journal, he said, “Everything is under negotiation, including ‘One China.’”

In response to the call, Taiwan’s presidential office said it would “maintain close contact and communication” with the US.

Taiwan had initially welcomed Trump shining a spotlight on the island’s diplomatic isolation, but that elation quickly turned to apprehension as it risked becoming a pawn between the two superpowers.

The conversation between Trump and Xi comes a day before Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrives in Washington – the first Asian leader to visit Trump in the White House.

’Bare minimum’

Ashley Townshend, a research fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, said the phone call wasn’t necessarily a sign of a “more conciliatory approach from the Trump administration towards China.”

“It’s the bare minimum for the two sides to progress. This removes self-imposed obstacles – Trump’s own recklessness. But it’s still likely to be an abrasive relationship – there’s still a very hard line on China, North Korea sanctions enforcement and the South China Sea,” he said.

On the campaign trail, Trump had consistently talked tough on China, particularly over trade. He had pledged to label China a currency manipulator on day one of his administration – but that didn’t happen.

Shen Dingli, a professor of international relations at Fudan University in Shanghai, told CNN last month that Taiwan is a red line for China’s leaders.

“We cannot do Taiwan as a bargaining chip,” he said.

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’Countless challenges’

According to China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Xi told Trump that the two countries faced a complex global landscape and countless challenges making it even more necessary and urgent for China and the US to strengthen cooperation.

Xi also said he appreciated Trump’s emphasis that the US government would abide by the “One China” policy.

The readout released by the White House described the call as “extremely cordial,” and said “representatives of the United States and China will engage in discussions and negotiations on various issues of mutual interest.”

The two leaders also extended invitations to meet in their respective countries.

In China, there’s been speculation that Trump could be invited to attend a major economic summit Beijing is hosting in May, which will be attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

CNN’s David McKenzie, Steven Jiang, Yuli Yang in Beijing contributed to this report.