Diplomacy or rivalry? Wise choices are needed if US-China ties are to pass the Trump test
Yun Tang sees uncertain times ahead for Washington’s relations with Beijing under Donald Trump’s hard-line White House, but the signs are that wisdom will prevail
US President-elect Donald Trump is assembling his cabinet before taking office on January 20. Now those around the world who were stunned at his election want to see how Trump will run the country, especially how he handles the all-important relationship with China.
Relations are at a critical juncture because of widespread calls in Washington for a tougher China policy. American displeasure towards Beijing stems from China’s drastically increased economic and military clout during the Obama years, with experts predicting that its economy will become the world’s largest in the 2020s.
Many believe Washington has failed to integrate a rising China into the US-led world system that champions democracy and a market economy; so China not only threatens the US dollar but also US dogma.
When bidding for the White House, Trump often pounded China. Last November, he wrote in The Wall Street Journal that, “On day one of a Trump administration, the US Treasury Department will designate China a currency manipulator.” He also vowed to slap 45 per cent tariffs on imports from China.
His plan of a day-one assault has analysts doubting its feasibility and citing the danger of a trade war. Above all, the implementation of these measures depends more on how he evaluates the huge impact on overall US-China relations.
Trade and finance will be major wrestling fields. Trump will definitely take action on reducing the trade deficit with China and creating more jobs in the US. However, currently, Chinese growth is slow and export pressures are increasing; an economic showdown risks serious consequences on either side.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal has been the economic pillar of the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” policy, which aims to counter China’s rising economic influence. However, Trump wrote in USA Today in March that the “TPP is the biggest betrayal in a long line of betrayals where politicians have sold out US workers”.
On November 21, Trump promised a US withdrawal from TPP negotiations. But, just days before, at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Lima, China had pushed for its alternative to the TPP: the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which excludes the US.
Trump is now pinched between two unwanted consequences: let friends and allies swallow the bitter fruit of following the US trade initiative, or let China guide economic cooperation and free trade in the Asia-Pacific and beyond.
Trump was not favoured by the US political establishment and media for just this reason – they knew that his isolationist and protectionist agenda, despite its “America first” flavour, would result in “America last” amid the intense competition of a globalised world.
In the same WSJ essay, Trump promised to “build the military we need to contain China’s overreach in the Pacific Rim and the South China Sea”. Maritime disputes will be the most dangerous challenge facing the two sides, as they have locked horns over Washington’s denial of, and Beijing’s insistence on, China’s sovereignty claims.
Significant developments in international relations in the region are complicating US efforts to contain China and maintain its dominant military power status in the South China Sea. The Philippines has markedly scaled back its alliance with the US; Malaysia has strengthened maritime cooperation with China and agreed to buy Chinese naval vessels. Also, Manila will take the Asean chairmanship for 2017, enabling more room for China’s diplomatic manoeuvres on regional maritime disputes.
Despite campaign rhetoric of withdrawing US troops from Asia, and letting Japan and South Korea defend themselves, Trump has signalled that the US security commitment in the Asia-Pacific will not change. Rather, the US will substantially increase its military presence in Asia. If the Trump administration resumes arms sales to Taipei, tensions may flare with Beijing.
An intense headache for the new US president will be preventing North Korea from becoming a fully fledged nuclear power with missiles capable of striking America. To tackle Pyongyang’s nuclear challenges, Trump said in June that he would talk to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un: “If he came here, I’d accept him.”
Over the years, China’s clumsy handling of Pyongyang’s nuclear provocations has taken its influence in North Korea down to the lowest point since the Korean war, given the fact that Kim has yet to visit China, nearly five years after he came to power. But Beijing does not support more sanctions against Pyongyang out of worries about the aftermath of its collapse and a subsequent US-led unification of the Korean peninsula. More US experts are now calling for dialogue with Pyongyang, even suggesting establishing diplomatic ties, with the prerequisite of denuclearisation.
In late October, US and North Korean diplomats met “informally” in Kuala Lumpur, where Pyongyang reportedly promised not to engage in another provocation until President Barack Obama’s term ends. On November 15, a North Korean envoy left for Geneva to continue the Kuala Lumpur meeting with the US. It would be imprudent to predict any US diplomatic breakthrough with Pyongyang, but the possibility of dramatic changes during Trump’s term cannot be ruled out.
Compared with the previous Obama years, US-China relations now show more uncertainties. But the so-called China threat to the US is far less than perceived. However, an unprecedented negative factor in bilateral ties is that both leaders face enormous domestic pressure.
In the US, bitterness over the divisive election lingers, with large-scale protests planned on Trump’s inauguration day, and after. In China, an outpouring of nationalist fervour is making many indulge in illusions about China’s power and a misinterpreted US decline. Mounting domestic pressure on either side might culminate in limiting policy choices on bilateral relations.
The personal trust between Obama and President Xi Jinping (習近平) played a major role in stabilising the relationship. Upon Trump’s election, Xi sent a congratulatory message and spoke on the phone to him, calling for cooperation. A statement from Trump’s office said the pair “established a clear sense of mutual respect” and that Trump believes the two countries will have one of the strongest relationships moving forward.
Also, reports suggest Trump may name Iowa governor Terry Branstad, who has had a special friendship with Xi for three decades, as US ambassador to China.
These are good first steps. However, Trump’s appointment of hardliners for his national security team indicates that Beijing now has to deal with a harsher White House. Moreover, Trump is more powerful at home than Obama because of his Republican Party’s bicameral control of the US Congress.
In conclusion, Trump’s term is likely to spell the most uncertain times for US-China relations since president Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China.
Nevertheless, the daily lives of the two peoples have been deeply entangled since then and there is a strong will from both sides now for robust and mutually beneficial ties.
Thus, under Trump, US-China relations will wade in unknown waters, relying on accurate judgment of each other’s intentions and actions. Both sides ought to seek to maximise their interests within the limits of the other’s acceptance. In such testing times, the two countries must demonstrate enough wisdom to appreciate the art of constructive diplomacy better than the valour of strategic rivalry.
Yun Tang is a commentator in Washington. firstname.lastname@example.org