White House mixes up China and Taiwan in G20 statement

Trump press secretary mistakenly identifies Xi Jinping as the leader of the island nation

US president Donald Trump and Chinese president Xi Jinping  prior to a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

US president Donald Trump and Chinese president Xi Jinping prior to a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images


US president Donald Trump hailed his “wonderful relationship” with Chinese leader Xi Jinping during talks at the G20 - although his felicitations were undermined when the White House mistakenly referred to the Communist Party chief as the president of Taiwan.

Trump and the Chinese president met for more than 90 minutes in Hamburg on Saturday afternoon, with North Korea’s nuclear programme and trade dominating the agenda.

Mr Trump struck a superficially friendly note at the meeting, despite mounting tensions between the world’s top two economies.

“It’s an honour to have you as a friend,” he told Mr Xi, according to a statement from the White House press secretary.

However, the US statement contained a critical error. Rather than referring to Xi by his correct title - president of the People’s Republic of China - it identified him as president of the Republic of China, the official name for Taiwan.

Taiwan’s democratically-elected president is Tsai Ing-wen, who is both the most powerful woman in the Chinese-speaking world and one of Xi Jinping’s arch-rivals.

China specialists immediately picked up on the blunder - as would have Beijing.

“What a bunch of amateurs,” tweeted Bill Bishop, the publisher of Sinocism, a newsletter about China’s economy and politics.

“It’s a pretty major faux pas,” said Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at Washington’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

Similar slips have occurred under previous administrations. When Mr Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, toured the US in 2006, George W Bush’s White House committed its own diplomatic gaffe by introducing the national anthem of the People’s Republic of China as that of Taiwan.

Still, Ms Glaser said observers would be quick to blame the error on Mr Trump’s “somewhat unusual” style of governance and his failure to fill many government positions.

“It is a bit of a loss of face for Xi Jinping - it probably won’t be too widely reported [in China],” she predicted. “And maybe it will give Tsai Ing-wen a good laugh.”

North Korea

In the lead-up to Saturday’s talks, experts had warned that relations between Washington and Beijing were heading on to the rocks, after their leaders failed to agree on how to thwart the nuclear ambitions of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.

Last week, Kim conducted his first test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

Speaking on Saturday, Mr Trump, who has been trying to convince Beijing to increase pressure on Pyongyang, said he would “eventually” succeed in solving the North Korea problem.

“There will be success in the end, one way or the other.”

Mr Trump also vowed to resolve trade “imbalances”.

“We’re going to turn that around.”

According to a Chinese account of the meeting, Mr Xi told Mr Trump he hoped for “healthy and stable” ties, despite “sensitive issues”. China’s official news agency, Xinhua, said there was “an in-depth exchange of views” about North Korea at the meeting.

Ms Glaser said it was hard to gauge whether Mr Xi and Mr Trump had reached any new understanding on North Korea.

“My guess is that they have decided at least some of the things that Xi Jinping will do, although maybe they won’t talk about it publicly. Mr Xi cannot look like he is making concessions under pressure from Trump. That would certainly be very damaging for him domestically.”

Ms Glaser predicted Mr Xi would offer to take further action, possibly by shutting down some of the banks and front companies in northeast China that help prop up the North Korean regime.

“Xi Jinping does not want a rupture in the US-China relationship and there are things that he is willing to do,” she said.

However, Ms Glaser questioned whether those moves would meet Mr Trump’s expectations, or leave him “frustrated and disappointed - and going back to Xi Jinping again”.

Guardian service