Drawing on inspiration from the Charles Dickens late author of “A Tale of Two Cities”, today’s political landscape can be described as such; it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of faltering western liberalism, it was the age of growing rightwing populism, it was the epoch of dissent, it was the epoch alternative facts. It was the season of unity, it was the season of divisiveness.
With populism on the rise, political phenomena such as Brexit and the election of Donald Trump have sent shock waves around the world, challenging the post-World War II international system, norms and values which have dominated for the last 70 years. One of the most notable challenges that the global community has had its eye on since the recent United States elections is the future of US-China relations under a Trump administration.
Expected by many to be a showdown, a clash between the world’s two powerhouse economies, the long awaited meeting between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, fell far short of that. Rather, it quickly became clear that it was no more than a run of the mill, affable moment for the leaders of the world’s two most powerful economies to meet and break the ice.
Trump, who has been notorious for his hard stance and strong rhetoric against China, offered positive, though inarticulate words about the meeting “We have made tremendous progress in our relationship with China. Lots of very potentially bad problems will be going away.”
While the meeting itself was lackluster in regards to the fierce clash many had expected, it did produce two somewhat substantial outcomes — or at least the beginnings. Firstly, upon Trump pressing that he and his counterpart should begin to immediately address the trade deficit between the two nations, the Chinese offered up a 100 day plan to essentially overhaul the economic trade relationship between the two countries.
While no specifics were given, a 100 day plan is ambitious and far from realistic. The interdependent relationship that the U.S. and Chinese economy share is delicate and would take years to unravel a revamp. However, to further pressure that some concessions be made by China, it is expected Trump plans to sign an executive order which would punish those who dump excess steel into U.S. markets, a move no doubt aimed at China.
The two leaders also agreed to begin work towards establishing high level talks in order to discuss topics ranging from diplomacy, security and economic issues. While this also came with no specifics, it is imperative that Trump not only partake in proactive communications with Beijing, but also begin to do so regularly.
The trade deficit between the United States and China that Trump so regularly touts as being a major issue is no doubt one that can be addressed. However, taking a pen to executive orders as though it were the equivalent to waving a magic wand cannot and will not solve all the issues Trump hopes to address. Rather, it may produce short term gains but set the field up for long term loses.
While the real estate mogul may pride himself on being a master of the art of the deal, he needs to recognize that real diplomacy requires open dialogue, patience, and compromise. Trump will have to engage in diplomacy that goes past wining and dining at Mar-a-lago and be prepared to make concessions himself.
Though the meeting between Trump and Xi Jinping did not seem out of the ordinary compared to presidents meeting with other heads of states, the most notable instance was the fact that during Xi Jinping’s stay, Donald Trump ordered a retaliatory airstrike against the Assad regime in Syria for its use of chemical weapons. This show of unilateral military force by the Trump administration demonstrated to China that if they are not willing to assert more pressure on Pyongyang, then the United States is willing to act alone in handling the defiant regime.
Trump has regularly criticized China for not exerting enough pressure on North Korea. To further pressure China to do more to reign in its increasingly defiant neighbor, Trump took to twitter to say, “I explained to the President of China that a trade deal with the U.S. will be far better for them if they solve the North Korean problem!”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently saying on his visit to South Korea that all options were on the table when it comes to the United States deciding on how to best deal with the Pyongyang. This includes unilateral military action. Trump more or less confirmed this via twitter by recently saying, “North Korea is looking for trouble. If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them! U.S.A.”
While China has stepped up its pressure on Pyongyang, most recently by enforcing sanctions against the regime, relations between the two have been at their worst level in years, making it increasingly difficult for China to do much more. Trump threatening to use the highly sensitive, interdependent trade and economic relationship that the United States and China share as leverage is not only unwise, but irresponsible as it would have global economic ramifications.
Trumps’ move to direct U.S. navy ships towards the Korean peninsula in response to North Korea’s April 5th missiles test prompted the North Korean government to state that if pressed it is “ready for war” . Trump’s actions are escalating the potential for confrontation with North Korea, which is almost certainly decreasing China’s willingness to assist.
To be successful, Donald Trump should begin focusing his energies firstly on addressing North Korea, and making sure that China not only plays an active role, but that their concerns and ideas are heard. This will allow trust to build between Washington and Beijing which in turn would increase the chances of a new and improved trade deal between China and the U.S. being negotiated.
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Mel Gurtov Editor-in-Chief, Asian Perspective
Tao Wenzhao Researcher, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences