China-US relations

How Trump’s ‘America First’ approach can ease the great power rivalry with China

Zhang Baohui says Trump’s likely rejection of the traditional role of the US as a leader in international affairs would be welcome in Beijing and should lead to better Sino-US relations

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 January, 2017, 5:05pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 January, 2017, 7:10pm

Donald Trump has managed to rattle Sino-US relations even before he assumes the presidency. His phone call with Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, triggered concerns that he could upset the fundamental rules of the Sino-US relationship. Not only that, he also tweeted criticism of China’s trade practices and island-building in the South China Sea, and appointed Peter Navarro, a known China critic, to head the newly created White House National Trade Council. All of these have stirred legitimate concerns about his administration’s handling of bilateral relations.

But before we jump to conclusions, we need a deeper understanding of Trump’s foreign policy. In fact, if we assess Trump’s likely China policy in the context of his views on the US role in the world, we would arrive at a brighter outlook for Sino-US ties.

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

It is hard to believe that Trump – whose tweets seem to indicate a temperament ruled by impulse – has a grand strategy for US foreign policy. Indeed, pundits have portrayed him as clueless and poorly informed about foreign policy issues.

But Trump does have a coherent view of the US role in the world. His “America First” slogan is a repudiation of the traditional role of the US as a leader in international affairs. As the Brookings Institution’s Robert Kagan put it, the president-elect “has little interest in shouldering the burden of global order”. Indeed, during the election, Trump promised to end US military involvements overseas and repeatedly attacked Hillary Clinton’s internationalist foreign policy. He also suggested that allies should be responsible for their own security, instead of relying on the US.

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Trump denies his approach is “isolationist”. Instead, a more accurate description of it is the “offshore balancing” strategy championed by prominent scholars such as John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard University.

Proponents of this approach abhor the huge cost of the global primacy strategy the US has adopted since the end of the second world war. They ague that the US is risking an “imperial overstretch” with this approach, which will eventually lead to the relative decline of the country.

Instead, they advocate, the US should reduce its global involvements and allow the regional balance of power to maintain stability. The US would only intervene when the regional balance of power mechanisms fail to secure peace.

Trump’s world view closely resembles this “offshore balancing” strategy. At its root, the strategy is non-realist. If the United States gives up its interest in securing global primacy, it would violate the basic tenet of realism, which sees power rivalry as the fundamental driver of international relations. As Robert Kaplan aptly observed in his post-election analysis, “On foreign policy, Donald Trump is no realist”.

Trump’s inclinations should usher in more relaxed great power relations. As Mearsheimer argues, the tragedy of great power relations lies in their quest for primacy and the resulting arms races and wars.

In recent years, Washington’s relations with China and Russia have seen a renewed focus on great power rivalry. The Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia and its failed “reset” of US relations with Russia have even triggered scenarios of a new cold war.

In contrast, Trump’s more relaxed view towards great power rivalry should in theory lead to easier US relations with Beijing and Moscow. Trump has even called for a partnership with Russia to defeat Islamic State.

Beijing should know that a Trump tweet does not necessarily mean a change in policy

While arguing that Trump is uninterested in continuing the US role as the world’s “indispensible nation”, Kagan points out that his foreign policy is mainly concerned with “immediate threats to the homeland”, which come from Islamic terrorism. Indeed, throughout the election, Trump incessantly talked about threats posed by Islamic terrorism in general and Islamic State in particular.

Trump’s top national security appointments after the election have been consistent with this identification of security threats. Both General Michael Flynn, the next national security adviser, and General James Mattis, the incoming secretary of defence, made their mark with their experience of fighting Islamic terrorism and service in the Middle East.

Foreign Policy magazine recently obtained a Pentagon memo that reflects the national security priorities of the Trump team. According to the memo, the incoming administration’s top security priorities include defeating Islamic State; eliminating budget caps on defence spending; developing a new cybersecurity strategy; and, finding greater efficiencies.

As we can see from an analysis of Trump’s strategic inclinations, his China policy will be guided much less by the realist logic of great power rivalry. This should lead to cautious optimism for Sino-US relations in the next four years.

China ties are too valuable for the US to throw away on a whim

Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia is a realist strategy to shore up US primacy in the context of China’s rise. In contrast, Trump’s approach could halt the zero-sum rivalry between the two. After all, he killed the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal, which is an important element in Obama’s pivot strategy. In the eyes of Chinese elite, the pivot is nothing more than a containment strategy towards China.

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However, America’s trade relations with China may become nastier under Trump. This will be consistent with his “America First” doctrine. As he claimed repeatedly during the election, he wants to create jobs for the American people, and this depends on drawing fairer trade deals with other countries, especially China.

While security interests tend to be zero-sum, trade interests are subject to negotiations

While he may indeed pursue more aggressive trade policies vis-à-vis Beijing, as suggested by his appointment of Navarro, economic rivalry is far more manageable than security rivalry. While security interests tend to be zero-sum, trade interests are subject to negotiations. This implies that Beijing and Washington may be able to strike deals on a mutually acceptable framework for trade.

After all, China is keenly aware that the current trade situation benefits it far more than the US. The Chinese understand that China’s huge trade surplus over the US gives Trump legitimate complaints. As a result, since 2006, China has been making trade concessions to the US by steadily appreciating the renminbi.

While prospects for Sino-US relations are generally positive for the next four years, Trump’s personality may still periodically cause trouble. His impulsiveness, as demon­strated by his tweets on China and his ill-considered phone call with Tsai, may lead to strategic mistrust between his administration and Beijing.

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While Trump needs to be more disciplined after he assumes the presidency, China also needs to adapt to his personality and keep in mind the larger picture of the bilateral relationship. Beijing should know that a Trump tweet does not necessarily mean a change in policy. Moreover, China should also be confident that its own power, both military and economic, could check any extreme moves by the Trump administration.

After Trump’s phone call with Tsai, his transition team sought to assure the world that he does not want to reset Sino-US relations. As his incoming chief of staff, Reince Priebus, said on December 18, Trump would not “revisit” the “one China” policy. The appointment of Iowa’s governor Terry Branstad, who has a personal relationship with Chinese leader Xi Jinping (習近平), as the next ambassador to Beijing may also suggest that Trump has no intention to shatter relations.

The future of the Sino-US relationship, therefore, may not be as bleak as it looks based on recent events. If Beijing refrains from responding with knee-jerk reactions to every Trump tweet, the two countries may be able to enjoy a relatively stable relationship in the next four years.

Zhang Baohui is professor of political science and director of the Centre for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. He is the author of China’s Assertive Nuclear Posture: State Security in an Anarchic International Order