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Foreign Policy

China and Trump: A New Mega-narrative?

Jan 20 , 2017

Is the relationship between the United States and China destined to start off on a negative footing under President Trump? Such questioning seems hopelessly redundant. The persistent pattern of rhetoric from Mr. Trump and his foreign policy team sounds like a team of enraged bulls charging into a china shop. Pun intended.

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Viewed from Beijing, where I am based, it is important to bear in mind that during the entire U.S. presidential campaign season, “Let’s get tougher on China” emerged as a consensus message across the entire U.S. political spectrums. Voices for a reduction of confrontation were few and effectively cast aside.

Mrs. Clinton, the Democratic candidate, was reported to want to “ring China with missiles” if her campaign prevailed. Mr. Trump not only spoke of China in relation to the American economy and society in a mode that echoed America’s “Japan-bashing” fever of the 1980s, he also directly touched the most sensitive nerve of the Chinese government and the country’s citizens: America’s position on the status of Taiwan.

China, in response, has repeatedly stated that its position on the basis for normal diplomatic ties – foreign governments accept the Chinese government’s positon on ‘One China’ – is not for negotiation. By the way, Chinese appetize for satisfying the incoming Trump team’s demands on other matters may not be that high, either.

Few expect Trump to switch his government’s recognition of ‘one China’ from Beijing to Taipei. Under his leadership, the United States is more likely to pursue policies that come across as poking in the eye (or heart) of Beijing. Then, the extent of tolerance on the part of Beijing comes into question. Active conflict between China and the United States over Taiwan seems less distant a prospect.

In my mind, the stakes are higher for China than for the U.S. An overwhelming majority of Chinese citizens were able to attain a life better than their parents, thanks to 40 years without a war between China and a major power, America included. War over Taiwan (or indeed the islands and rocks in the East Asian seas) would create at least a 50-50 chance of destroying hope of similar progress for our next generation.

In the totality of foreign challenges facing the American society, is China being singled out by the U.S. government?

If one judges by mainstream commentaries in the Chinese media, the answer is an overwhelmingly “Yes.” In the American media, answers to such questioning amount to a resounding “No.” Media in both countries represent solid senses of self-righteousness. As such, it is nearly pointless to try to argue for joint efforts leading to common ground over what has caused the bilateral ties to come to the present stage.

The time has come, however, for China to address Americans’ seemingly pervasive sense of vulnerability by stating that a harmonious, prosperous, powerful yet responsible United States constitutes part of the favorable external environment that China wishes to have.

At recent academic conference sessions held in both China and the U.S., I tested this articulation and received mixed reactions. Yet, it may well help answer the justifiably salient question on the minds of many Americans: Now that China’s capacity to compete with the United States has risen in some areas and seems sure to rise further, what does China want?

An alternative approach is to continue to urge each side to use history as a mirror—a reason against the use of force as a means of conflict resolution. The nagging challenge in this approach is that Americans and Chinese rarely agree on the causality of major conflicts in history. In addition, each side not only has a strong belief in its own reasoning but also tends to reinforce traditional beliefs when it feels to be the rightfully aggrieved party in the relationship.

Skeptics about the possible impact of such phrasing – if only to substantiate the usual ‘win-win’ formulation – correctly remind us that deeds, not words, matter. Furthermore, it is not for China to influence and change America.

Yet since China has such a consequential relationship with the U.S. at hand—not just with the incoming Trump administration but into the indefinite future—it is worth suggesting that China come up with a mega-narrative -- like the one suggested just above -- about the relationship. That mega-narrative should serve to guide competing interests at home and simultaneously speak to concern in American society.

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