China-US relations

Why Trump’s blunt approach will put US relations with China on surer footing

Lanxin Xiang says after eight years of failing to engage with Beijing under Obama, Trump’s team of businessmen and generals will help reduce basic strategic mistrust

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 December, 2016, 5:27pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 December, 2016, 6:53pm

Addressing the Valdai Club in Russia in October, I compared the Trump phenomenon and widespread popular protests against established powers to 1848, a year of revolution in Central and Western Europe.

I also wrote a commentary in Chinese on “Trump’s November Miracle”, but none in the mainland press carried it as the Beijing policy establishment firmly believed in a victory for the Democratic nominee, Hilary Clinton.

President-elect Donald Trump recently said he considers America’s adherence to the “one China” policy a bargaining chip, to be traded off against other things that the United States wants from China.

As he said on Fox News Sunday: “I don’t know why we have to be bound by a one-China policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade ... we’re being hurt very badly by China with devaluation; with taxing us heavy at the borders when we don’t tax them; with building a massive fortress in the middle of the South China Sea, which they shouldn’t be doing; and ... with not helping us at all with North Korea.”

Watch: Trump questions US adherence to one-China policy

In other words, the one-China policy isn’t a big deal, it’s a bargaining point, like many other issues. So, is Trump right?

Many China hands in the US think “no”. They note that the relatively stable relationship between China and Taiwan is built precisely on ambiguity, where Beijing claims Taiwan as part of its national territory but is prepared to let it continue to exist, while Taiwan also has an interest in not clarifying its relationship with the mainland too precisely.

Chinese leaders seem to have realised that they are facing a new cold war

They believe Trump has stumbled into dangerous waters where this delicate and ambiguous relationship must be clarified.

Personally, I do not think it is a big deal, because Taiwan has always been an implicit bargaining chip for China’s external relations, not least with the US. Despite the official protest from Beijing that rejects Trump’s transactional outlook on Taiwan, it is understood that Trump and his team, led by businessmen and generals, may provide a better platform for bilateral negotiations on the most important dimension of the relationship: reducing basic strategic mistrust.

That would be in sharp contrast to the team of President Barack Obama, led by lawyers under the banner of political correctness in international affairs.

The Sino-US relationship under Obama reached the lowest point since the Nixon-Kissinger days, ­despite the highest frequency of summit meetings between Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ) and Obama. There was no chemistry between the two.

The so-called Strategic and Economic Dialogue mechanism seems to be going nowhere and should be discarded. In its place, we should hope to see genuine dialogue, not only at the summit level but also at the functional level.

Trump’s blunt approach may improve the relationship in a more substantial way than Obama’s ambiguous, self-contradictory approach, especially with his strategy of a “pivot to Asia”.

Why Obama Failed in China

While the Obama administration blames China for the current state of affairs, especially the sudden “assertiveness” after Obama’s trip to Beijing in November 2009, the Chinese leaders seem to have realised that they are facing a new cold war.

For years, mainstream Chinese and American analysts refused to see this coming. But the year 2016 has proved that the mainstream is always wrong.

Many of them preferred to bury their heads in the sand. Up until the emergence of the “pivot”, the most provocative expression on containing China militarily was “hedging”, reflecting some flexibility and ambiguity. Now “hedging” is over, too.

How the China-US relationship evolved, and why it still matters

It is not surprising that hawks in the Chinese military are getting the full attention of the leadership and a full boost with funding. Not too long ago, the Beijing elite were still debating whether or not Deng Xiaoping’s ( 鄧小平 ) famed policy dictum, “Hide one’s capabilities and bide one’s time (tao guang yang hui)”, the opposite to “assertiveness”, should be kept intact, and the majority responded with an emphatic “yes”.

Xi publicly acknowledged that strategic bilateral differences may be irreconcilable

Now, the US “pivot” has prompted military leaders to speed up transformation, and deepen and widen efforts to prepare for future military struggle and push for greater modernisation. More significantly, Xi has gone further by using a different set of terminology to describe Sino-US relations.

Instead of the usual vague phrase of “strengthening strategic trust”, Xi, during his trip to the US earlier this year, publicly acknowledged that strategic bilateral differences may be irreconcilable.

The old official approach was to “smooth over these differences (mi he fen qi)”, a tactical move; the new catchphrase is to “control and manage the differences (guan kong fen qi)”, a major shift to the strategic perspective.

This is no ordinary change of tone; it is viewed as a timely response to the policy pursued by the Americans.

Will Donald Trump make China great again?

Gone are the days of strategic ambiguity on both sides, as the leadership under Xi attempts to set what it considers a more realistic framework for future bilateral ties.

The “control and management” approach may imply at least two things: first, the realisation that conflict with the US can no longer be avoided within the current framework of engagement; the so-called Strategic and Economic Dialogue has contributed little to building mutual trust at summit meetings.

Beijing cannot continue dealing with the ‘inside-the-beltway’ US foreign policy establishment

Second, China’s focus will have to shift towards maintaining a true strategic balance, as if during a cold war stalemate, with the single purpose of avoiding full-fledged confrontation. Leaderships on both sides need a new approach, new type of analysts and policymakers to engage.

Beijing cannot continue dealing with the “inside-the-beltway” US foreign policy establishment, whose utter failure in engaging China in the past eight years has pushed bilateral ties to the dangerous brink of naval confrontation. Enter Donald Trump.

Now that the Washington foreign policy establishment has been dealt a big blow by Trump’s election, we could see that the new administration, with its mostly non-insider members, despite its callous style and brutish rhetoric, may actually turn out to be an effective team for engaging China.

It may thus be good news for Sino-US relations in the medium and long run.

Lanxin Xiang is a professor of international history and politics at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies Geneva, Switzerland, and director of the Centre of One Belt and One Road Security Studies, at the China National Institute for SCO International Exchange and Judicial Cooperation, Shanghai