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U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken and China’s most senior foreign policy official Yang Jiechi talked on the phone last Friday. The Japanese and international media have reported the two top diplomats’ first telephone conversation with differing headlines and angles. It’s important to pay attention to the press and official coverage of the call.

CNN’s headline was “China’s top diplomat takes hardline stance in first call with new U.S. Secretary of State.” Reuters, by contrast, used the headline, “Blinken presses China on Xinjiang, Hong Kong in call with Beijing’s top diplomat.” These headlines are in fact two sides of the same coin.

Yang reportedly told Blinken that the United States should “correct recent mistakes, and work with China.” Was Yang arrogantly looking down on Blinken? And did Blinken properly rebut? Most importantly, did they discuss Taiwan and if so, how?

The Feb. 5 State Department readout said that Blinken “spoke” today with Yang and “extended his best wishes for the Lunar New Year.” China’s Feb. 6 foreign ministry statement said that Yang had a phone “conversation” with Blinken “at the latter’s request.” For Beijing, which side wanted the call first mattered more.

Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong

The U.S. readout wrote that Blinken “stressed the United States will continue to stand up for human rights and democratic values, including in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong, and pressed China to join the international community in condemning the military coup in Burma.” Blinken said the right things at the right time.

Yang, according to the Chinese statement, said “Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet-related affairs are all China’s internal affairs, and it allows no interference by any external forces.” On Myanmar, he said, “the international community should create an enabling external environment for the proper settlement of the Myanmar issue.”

CNN’s narrative was right in reporting that Yang “has again pinned the blame on Washington for plunging bilateral relations to their lowest point in decades, and rejected international criticism of Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.” China won’t consider foreign interventions into its internal affairs.

Free and Open Indo-Pacific

According to the U.S. readout, Blinken said Washington will “hold the PRC accountable for its efforts to threaten stability in the Indo-Pacific, including across the Taiwan Strait, and its undermining of the rules-based international system.” The United States made it clear that Taiwan is a part of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP).

The Chinese document wrote that Yang said, “the consensus of the international community” is “not the so-called rules-based international order championed by a few countries,” urging that “the U.S. side play a constructive role in promoting peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region.” China seems to have rejected the FOIP concept.

Taiwan and one-China policy

As compared to the headlines of CNN or Reuters stories, headlines by Taiwanese and Japanese media were more focused on Taiwan issues with an emphasis on the concept of the one-China policy. The most important parts of diplomatic exchanges are often unpublished. The Blinken-Yang conversation was no exception to that rule.

While the U.S. readout never referred to the discussion over the one-China policy, the Chinese version is more eloquent. “Yang Jiechi said that the Taiwan question, the most important and sensitive core issue in China-U.S. relations, influences China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

“The United States,” Yang continued, “should strictly abide by the one-China principle and the three Sino-U.S. joint communiques.” Most surprising was that the Chinese document even referred to the U.S. response to Yang’s propositions — which was not referred to in the readout by the State Department.

The Chinese statement reported that Blinken “said that the U.S. side is willing to develop stable and constructive bilateral relations with China. He reiterated that the U.S. side will continue to pursue the one-China principle and abide by the three Sino-U.S. joint communiques, and this policy stance has not changed.”

China seizes on an omission

“The U.S. side will continue to pursue the one-China principle”? What does this phrase mean? Conservatives in Tokyo never missed this potential discrepancy. Doesn’t the one-China policy consist of both the position stated in Shanghai Communique of 1972, which only “acknowledged” China’s claim, and the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979?

Japanese media has not noticed this inconsistency yet. Jiji Press ran the misleading headline, “U.S. and Chinese top diplomats argue on the phone, confront over ‘core interests’ but reconfirm ‘one-China’” which, as one Japanese scholar warned, could imply that Blinken might have accepted China’s one-China principle.

Although the scholar seems to have confused Washington’s one-China policy with Beijing’s one China principle, the argument the scholar made has hit the nail on the head. Did Blinken really say that the United States will “pursue the one-China principle?” The question has worried many in Tokyo.

The U.S. readout likely did not refer to the discussion on Taiwan and one-China, because the U.S. position on its one-China policy was so consistent and self-evident that the drafter of the readout may have decided not to include it in the document. It could be that simple.

Whatever the reason, China was clever enough to take advantage of the omission of one-China discussions in the U.S. readout to make the narrative conform to their interests. Shrewd Beijing will continue to be skilled at this kind of information warfare against its adversaries.

Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies. A former career diplomat, Miyake also serves as a special adviser to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s Cabinet. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Japanese government.

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