China-US relations

Under Trump, Sino-US ties are a work in progress

Some of the rhetoric has cooled since the new American president took office, yet there is work to do to overcome mistrust

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 March, 2017, 12:44am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 March, 2017, 12:44am

Donald Trump’s personality and political inexperience made a rocky start in relations between the United States and China inevitable. His phone conversation with President Xi Jinping (習近平 ) last month took away some of the uncertainty. The diplomatic dust has further settled after State Councillor Yang Jiechi’s (楊潔箎) series of meetings in Washington. Predictability still cannot be assured, but a good start has been made to finding the common ground that both nations need to ensure sturdy ties.

Yang, the highest-ranking Chinese official to visit the US since Trump took office, briefly met the American president during a trip that also included talks with Vice-President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, senior adviser Jared Kushner, chief strategist Stephen Bannon and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. The meetings centred on the message of cooperation and working for mutual benefit. Agreement of the need for improved ties was voiced and the importance of a constructive relationship reaffirmed. Opportunities certainly lie ahead if the two most powerful economies can settle differences and better understand one another.

Donald Trump meets with top Chinese envoy Yang Jiechi as hopes for Xi Jinping summit build

But that will take time and top-level interactions, especially so given Trump’s steep learning curve. His missteps before taking office, most disturbingly by breaking with decades of Sino-US protocol by speaking with Taiwan’s leader Tsai Ing-wen, caused diplomatic unease. Campaign rhetoric centred on accusing China of being a currency manipulator and poacher of American jobs and opportunities. Wisely, Beijing responded in measured tones.

Trump’s phone call to Xi on February 9 during which he pledged to honour the “one-China” policy has lessened the doubt and his negative rhetoric has died down. He is still putting his administrative team together, so it will be some time before his policies are in place. Fortunately, he recognises the need to be less rash about his dealings with his country’s biggest and most significant trading partner.

A summit between Xi and Trump would improve understanding and build the bonds necessary for firm relations. The possibility was broached during Yang’s talks, although there was no agreement beyond expressions of a hope that it could be this year. There are many differences that need to be overcome, but also shared interests, prominent among them dealing with the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear programme and the global economy. Countries in the Asia-Pacific region, Singapore, Indonesia and Australia among them, are also eager that no trade war breaks out between Beijing and Washington. Trump’s call and Yang’s visit have created a foundation, but much work remains to assure cooperation, mutual benefits and an avoidance of confrontation.