Few recent developments in Sino-US relations, preceding the 2016 presidential election, strained the imagination. Old grudges over human rights and cyberattacks simmered, while tensions in the South China Sea escalated. In other areas, new progress left room for optimism. April’s global Nuclear Security Summit produced a bilateral agreement on non-proliferation and led China to announce new sanctions against North Korea following its series of nuclear tests. In September, the ratification of the Paris climate change agreement by both nations was a major win in the fight against climate change.
The North Korea sanctions and Paris climate change agreement each required the best efforts and good faith of Chinese and American diplomats. Nevertheless, their significance as bilateral achievements should not be overstated; they resulted from the fortunate alignment of unilateral desires to fight climate change and punish the Kim regime for nuclear testing. In that regard, China and the United States accomplished the most fundamental level of diplomacy, cooperating toward shared goals. That might have proved impossible in years past, but Obama and Xi have each demonstrated that although neither chose the other as his partner, they are both reasonable enough to join forces when the chance presents itself.
Sino-US cooperation during President Obama’s final year in office represented the maturity of the pair’s new vision for bilateral relations laid out during President Xi’s 2013 trip to the United States. Obama’s first term had been plagued by diplomatic quarrels with Beijing, but the two leaders eventually committed to finding common ground on nuclear security and climate change. Xi’s hold on the Chinese leadership and a projected Clinton administration committed to upholding Obama’s security and environmental policies all but promised the doctrinal continuity of this partnership of convenience.
Enter Donald Trump. As a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, Trump made repeated proposals for punitive tariffs on Chinese goods and suggested arming Japan and South Korea with nuclear weapons as part of a sweeping revision of security policy. Even among a generally hawkish field of GOP candidates quick to accuse Beijing of cyberwarfare and currency manipulation, Trump’s positions on China and East Asian security were so outlandish they were summarily dismissed. China’s diplomats and press were judicious in critiquing campaign trail chatter, with the notable exception of Trump’s threat to back out of the Paris climate pact. On November 1st, top Chinese climate negotiator Xie Zhenhua warned that rejection of the agreement would have adverse consequences for American social and economic progress.
The election, understandably, has changed circumstances. Since Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton, Chinese officials and state media have openly rebuked the president-elect for several of his stances and for his overall conduct. Following Trump’s much-publicized telephone conversation with Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen and his suggestion that the United States not be bound by the “one China” policy, the Chinese press made it clear that they take Trump both literally and seriously, to paraphrase Salena Zito of The Atlantic. A China Daily editorial called him a diplomatic rookie, and People’s Daily called him ignorant of China. A January 3rd piece by Xinhua expressed dismay at Trump’s reckless brand of Twitter diplomacy, calling it an undesirable indulgence on the part of a chief executive. It would be difficult to imagine a medium for diplomatic discourse less suited to President Xi’s sensibilities.
Beijing may be hanging on every word from Trump’s Twitter account, but very few of the president-elect’s policy positions can be ascertained prior to his inauguration. During the lame duck session, all that can be safely assumed is that the Trans-Pacific Partnership will be abandoned by the Trump administration. In the meantime, China has taken advantage of America’s policy of ‘one president at a time,’ experimenting with military gambits to test Trump’s reaction in simulation, while receiving more predictable responses from the Obama White House in reality. The third week of December saw Chinese flyovers and naval patrols around the Japanese-administered Diayou/Senkaku Islands, as well as the seizure of an unmanned, underwater United States Navy drone by the PLA Navy in international waters near the Philippines. Trump tweeted in response to the latter incident, first fulminating over the drone’s unlawful confiscation, and later – after the PLAN agreed to its return – suggesting that China be allowed to keep it.
Trump’s appointees offer little additional insight into his diplomatic strategy vis-à-vis China. Terry Branstad, the long-serving governor of Iowa, could be an inspired choice for ambassador. An executive keenly interested in promoting Iowan agricultural exports to China, Branstad has also been personally acquainted with President Xi since 1985 and the two remain on good terms. But closer to home, the president-elect has surrounded himself with advisors known for their disdain for the Chinese. Trump’s transition team has been advised by Michael Pillsbury, whose latest book outlines a secret Chinese plot to supplant American hegemony by 2049, one hundred years from the founding of the People’s Republic. Incoming chief trade negotiator Robert Lighthizer is a veteran of the Reagan’s administration tariff wars with Japan, who stands ready to circumvent or ignore World Trade Organization rules in addressing the trade deficit with China. And what is Beijing to make of UC Irvine economist and Trump advisor Peter Navarro, whose bibliography includes titles like The Coming China Wars and Death by China? Terry Branstad and the State Department may find themselves sidelined – or recruited as the cleanup crew for diplomatic mayhem emanating from Washington.
If the past is any indication, President Xi will not take inconsistency in stride and may seek more stable relations wherever possible. The $1 billion Breakthrough Energy Ventures fund – spearheaded by billionaires including philanthropist Bill Gates and Alibaba founder Jack Ma – to fight climate change may hint at future opportunities for Chinese innovation. Unable to make headway in talks with Washington, Chinese policymakers could find willing American partners in Silicon Valley or Sacramento for green initiatives and energy projects, barring a trade war.
As Inauguration Day draws near, a breakdown of the 2013 model of Sino-US relations established by Barack Obama and Xi Jinping seems inevitable. The only thing President-elect Trump has not done to irritate the Chinese is to meet with the Dalai Lama, but even that appears set for after the inauguration. If, as expected, President Xi is unable to work with the Trump administration as he has with President Obama’s, China will find itself by the end of 2017, as the sole superpower fully committed to fighting climate change. Xi and Trump will hopefully avoid a trade war, or worse, but on several key issues, the moral high ground is China’s to gain.
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Richard Weitz Senior Fellow, Hudson Institute