Why Eurasia will suffer if Donald Trump makes an enemy of China
Raffaello Pantucci says the US president’s hostile stance not only puts at risk overall ties with Beijing, but could also deprive Eurasia of the cooperation it needs to advance, and a counterweight to China’s potentially overbearing sway
There is a dichotomy at the heart of US-China relations that is best captured by the term “frenemies”. The relationship is both contentious and competitive, while also intertwined and interdependent. The economic side of this discussion is well-worn, but the security one is often overlooked, with a simplistic view concluding that interactions are constructed on an interdependent economic relationship and a tense security one.
This misses recent developments that may exacerbate the potential for a tense bilateral relationship under US President Donald Trump.
Watch: What cards can Trump play against China?
There is no denying the tense security relationship between Washington and Beijing in the Pacific and the seas off mainland China. A complicated weave of treaties and relationships gives the US a strong security footprint in an area which China claims as its own.
Yet, look over land and a very different perspective emerges. In Afghanistan, China and the US have cooperated for years in trying to bring the Taliban to peace talks, and undertaken joint training missions to build up Afghanistan’s own security capacity. In Central Asia, the two have discussed how to cooperate, though so far there is limited evidence of progress.
In Pakistan, China has played a positive role – with US support – in ensuring the relationship between Pakistan and India does not boil over into conflict. And the US has occasionally eliminated militant Uygurs of concern to Beijing in drone strikes in Afghanistan or Syria – in a reflection of how much China and the US face a joint threat of terrorism.
And there have been some direct joint operations and cooperative efforts. In November, US and Chinese forces practised a humanitarian disaster relief exercise in Yunnan. The concept was that, in the event of a natural disaster, American and Chinese forces might be able to play a role in mitigating the fallout together.
China has been taking out massive amounts of money & wealth from the U.S. in totally one-sided trade, but won't help with North Korea. Nice!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 2, 2017
All of these positive moves may now be under threat as both sides ratchet up tensions in the wake of Trump’s aggressive arrival in office. If the US president lives up to his promises of demanding a shift in the Sino-US economic relationship and a more confrontational approach over Taiwan aimed at further advancing this, it is perfectly possible that we may see China choosing to act in a more transactional manner over its links to the US in Eurasia.
If the relationship becomes too poisoned over the seas, Beijing may choose to refuse to play a productive role over land. China is still trying to work out what role it will play in Eurasia, and how it will enforce its will.
If it sees the US in a more competitive light, it is possible Beijing will start to conclude that it no longer wants to play a cooperative role with Washington. Rather, it will look to others, and start to strengthen its relations in a way to cut the US out of the region.
The potential loser in all of this is Eurasia – a region that needs greater cooperation from all sides if it is to realise the potential of the various proposed Silk Road and connectivity routes across the continent. The long-fallow US “New Silk Road” initiative to help Afghanistan reconnect to its region will dissolve further into irrelevance and American interests in Eurasia will be further reduced.
Currently, the region is dominated by Beijing’s economic push, but it requires greater investment and cooperation from a wider range of actors if it is to truly succeed. This includes both China and the US, which have different and important roles to play, and are both sought after by countries across the continent. If the two powers start to develop a more confrontational approach, it will limit connectivity but also deprive Eurasian powers of a key alternative to China’s potentially overbearing power across the continent.
The US and China have developed habits of close cooperation across Eurasia that have helped open up new markets and opportunities, and reconnect the world as never before. It has also shown how the US and China are able to play a productive and cooperative role together. If Trump forces a more confrontational and transactional relationship, it is likely that China will continue on its path across Eurasia alone or with other partners – a net loss for American power across the region.
Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute