No country, save perhaps Mexico, has been targeted more by the Trump administration than China. During the election campaign, the Trump administration consistently railed against Beijing’s trade imbalance with the United States and unfair practices noting that the country was “ripping” of the U.S. with few consequences. Trump’s advisors similarly pointed to the failure of former U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration to curb China’s assertive actions in the maritime domain – especially the East and South China Seas.
Things have not changed appreciably since this point. Last month, U.S. President Donald Trump had a phone call with Chinese leader Xi Jinping and apparently came to an uneasy truce on the most contentious issue – the “one-China” policy – brought up in the weeks following Trump’s stunning election last November. During that time, Trump rattled Beijing through a series of actions and statements that appeared to upset the status quo regarding U.S. ties with Taiwan. This started with Trump’s acceptance – as President-elect – of a phone call from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen.
This direct exchange Tsai broke with nearly four decades of U.S. precedent - and deference to the “one-China” policy. Trump subsequently rankled Beijing further through questioning the sacred “one-China” policy and its absolute nature. Indeed it seemed that Trump was looking at relations with Taiwan as a “chip” or point of leverage in order to turn the screws on Beijing to persuade it to make concessions – likely on trade – to Washington.
Trumps has also launched salvos at China through his barbs – mainly through social media – on Beijing’s destabilizing activities in the South China Sea and its lack of concrete efforts in dealing with a recalcitrant regime in North Korea. All of this is laced with Trump’s true driver in his approach to China – which is a hardline on trade issues. Specifically, the Trump administration has labeled China a “currency manipulator” (although has misspoke on the direction of this valuation) and railed against Beijing’s unfair trade practices. In this light, Trump has signaled intent and upped the stakes through promises to levy high tariffs on Chinese goods coming into the U.S. and his appointment pf Peter Navarro – well known for his hawkish economic stance on China – as his trade czar, setting the stage for a potential war with Beijing over trade.
How are things shaping up for U.S.-China relations under Trump? How can we sort out the bluster from the principled intent?
It is important to try and decipher Trump’s hardline approach and see where he intends to compromise with Beijing. Thus far, the Trump administration has talked tough on trade, maritime security issues (especially in the South China Sea), and the status of its relationship with Taiwan. Moreover, Trump has castigated Beijing for its lack of meaningful efforts to “restrain North Korea” from its continued march towards more deadly nuclear and missile capabilities. The swarm approach – by hitting Beijing on multiple issues in at once in a flurry – seems to be calculated upon Trump’s own business approach. This projects that Trump’s “leverage” over Beijing would compel painful concessions from China on core issues because of its fear over Washington’s scorn and threats. Indeed, following his relent on the “One China” policy – Trump’s Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, insisted that the “President always gets something” for a concession such as this.
China remains concerned that Trump will up the stakes in the contentious South China Sea, where Trump has blasted Beijing for “building a massive military complex.” China hit back at Trump with one of its key foreign ministry officials noting: “There might be a difference of opinion regarding who has sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea, but that's not for the United States to decide.” Beijing further insisted that, “This issue touches upon China's core interests. By no means is this something that can be negotiated, or [used] as a bargaining chip.” Beijing also must be alarmed at Trump’s new pledge to bolster the military defense budget by 10% and significantly increase the size of the U.S. navy. Trump’s advisors have also floated the idea of permanently deploying a second aircraft-carrier group in the Asia-Pacific. All of these plans still beg questions though – namely, how will this retooled navy be allocated in Asia and also who will be tapped to lead the transformation. Last month, Trump’s prospective pick for Secretary of the Navy – Philip Bilden – withdrew his name for the top naval post.
The fact is that the Trump administration should not – and indeed cannot - look at the U.S.-China relationship in zero-sum terms. There is need to retrofit the relationship and perhaps alter the strategic equity imbalance legacy during the Obama administration, which was too often risk-averse to dealing with Chinese activities, especially in the maritime domain. But this retrofit should come with a balanced approach. Namely, Washington can both enhance its alliances and presence in the Asia-Pacific while still engaging with China on issues that make sense. The two are not mutually exclusive and Washington has maintained pragmatic relations with Beijing for decades, alongside its alliance commitments. For example, the Trump administration should build on some windows of cooperation with China on security matters – such as China’s participation the past two years in the Rim of the Pacific naval exercises – and further develop lines of communication on defense issues both at track one and track two level.
Part of this cooperation will also involve being blunt and open – rather than ambiguous and guarded – about Washington’s critical interests in the region – such as its core alliances, freedom of navigation and respect for international law. Trump must make clear that the US too is a Pacific state and has existential interests in the region’s stability – in economic and security terms. Washington should not apologize or downplay those interests and, despite China’s opposition, should communicate that it will stand strongly with its allies (such as Japan and South Korea) against bullying in the East China Sea or on the issue of the deployment of the THAAD anti-missile battery.
Clarity and balance can help set the edges for the relationship – despite its complexities and diverging strategic interests in many areas. Beijing has apparently been looking to match the barbs from Trump with some concessions on North Korea – such as a significant, even if not game-changing, suspension of coal imports from Pyongyang. China is also reaching out at the highest levels since the Xi-Trump call, as evidenced by the visit of its top envoy Yang Jiechi to the Whitehouse last month. It’s time for a pragmatic and strategic look at U.S.-China relations and a move beyond rhetoric.