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Foreign Policy

Regression in Sino-U.S. Relations Leads to Nowhere

Feb 13 , 2017
  • Yin Chengde

    Research Fellow, China Foundation for Int'l Studies

Former US Secretary of State John Kerry shared the following points with Foreign Minister Wang Yi during their telephone conversation on Jan 5: The US-China relationship has developed across the board over the past years. The two countries have had close and fruitful cooperation on promoting global economic recovery and addressing international hotspot issues. The relationship between the United States and China is a very important one. Commitment to the one-China policy based on the three Sino-US Joint Communiqués is the US bipartisan position.

What Kerry said to Wang reflects the reality of steady progress of Sino-US relations over the years and the United States’ pro-engagement China policy. It is also a reflection of the normality of the bilateral ties since their establishment as well as the United States’ China policy over the past 38 years.

Yet Sino-US relations might face a rarely seen serious test as the political transition takes place in the United States. Newly elected President Trump already has made quite a few ultra-hardline comments on China. He pledged to impose 45% tariff on Chinese imports and threatened a trade war. He received the phone call from the pro-independence Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen, a violation of the principles governing Sino-US diplomatic relations. He even dangled the one-China principle as a bargaining chip. He picked a fair number of ultra-right hawks as cabinet members and advisers, who competed against each other to take a tough stance on China. At the Senate hearing on Jan 11, Secretary of State nominee Tillerson drew an improper analogy between China’s righteous moves in the South China Sea and Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and even threatened to “block China’s access” to the islands in the region. A foreign newspaper described it as an “explosive challenge” the Trump team threw out to China. The visit to Taiwan by Mr. Trump’s close aide is also seen as an open effort to bolster the pro-independence forces in the island.

Trump’s choice as the chairman of the new White House National Trade Council is seen by the media as an “anti-China alarmist” and his appointment as the opening salvo of a trade war against China. As a matter of fact, the unreasonable or even extreme words and actions by the Trump team have dealt a heavy blow to China’s strategic bottom line and the political foundation of Sino-US relations. The gravity of the situation is incomparable to any of the previous power transition periods since the establishment of Sino-US diplomatic ties in 1970s.

What Trump said is not campaign rhetoric aimed at attracting voters. He made such comments after winning the election, even days before his inauguration. To a great extent, they reflect his inherent idea. He chose to shift from the policy adopted by successive US presidents and the bipartisan consensus to an ultra-hardline position on China.

To me, it is due to the following factors. First, it is the essential property of someone being a right-wing hardliner. Trump and members of his team embrace anti-free trade and xenophobic ideas. They have a strong Cold War mentality and an antagonistic way of thinking. Thus it is only natural that China, a socialist state and the second-largest economy, becomes their primary target. Given his insufficient political experience, President Trump might be easily influenced by the ultra-hardliners on China or even “anti-China, pro-Taiwan” advocates in his national security team. Thus he may break the normality and take a hardline approach far exceeding his predecessor.

Second, Trump makes China a scapegoat for the United States’ decline. Trump’s acknowledgement of a weakening United States and his slogan “making America great again” is one major reason behind his success in the election. Yet he didn’t look into the institutional failures to find out why his country is declining. Instead, he put the blame on US rivals, in particular the fast-rising China. He accused China of “manipulating the currency” and “raping the US via unfair trade policy”. He made up the story of China “stealing US jobs” and seizing “$500 billion from the country every year”. He is shifting the blame to China and stirring up public opinion to make the case for strongly containing China.

Third, Trump has the inherent nature of a businessman. While a political layman, Trump is smart in business. He applies business logic to all other things. In his eyes, anything can be traded like goods. When talking about Sino-US relations earlier, he stated that all items, including the one-China policy, are negotiable, suggesting that he would acknowledge the one-China policy only if China made concessions on trade. This was an act out of ignorance of international relations. Handling the Taiwan issue in accordance with the one-China policy concerns China’s “core” interests of reunification, sovereignty and territorial integrity. It serves as the political foundation of Sino-US relations. Thus the one-China policy is not open to be negotiated. Non-recognition of the policy is like smashing the cornerstone of bilateral ties, which would lead to the collapse of the relationship.

Fourth, Trump fabricates the “China issue” to shift the domestic and international attention. Trump received a fair amount of negative media coverage: He is the most controversial US president-elect ever. His winning of the presidency would not be possible if not for the Electoral College system, as he received three million fewer popular votes than Hillary Clinton, the largest vote deficit for a US president-elect in history. Because of his outrageous words, Trump was not favored by the international community, including allies of the European Union. Knowing that he was not popular at home and abroad, he made an issue out of China, a country the United States picked as the potential strategic rival, to shift people’s attention and shore up his reputation.

It is not accidental for Trump to take an ultra-hardline approach on China. Like his insistence on his own way of doing business even after winning the presidency, his ultra-hardline attitude on China could still be turned into actual policy, which will have a devastating impact on the Sino-US relations. Consequently there might be broad regression in relations or even conflicts between the two powers. This being said, the Sino-US ties have a huge stake on the development, security or even future and destiny of the two countries respectively, as well as the developments of the world as a whole. The fundamental interests of the two countries as well as the international community are at stake. No policy maker shall be allowed to revert this relationship by any policy upheaval. Regression leads to nowhere. Consequences of undermining Sino-US relations are beyond anyone’s capacity.

As a Chinese saying goes, no one is capable of bringing all situations under control. Trump is a smart man. A reflection on the harsh realities might push him back to the policy framework upheld by successive US presidents and the bipartisan consensus on China. Hopefully he would change cause to a wise and practical policy on China so as to maintain a steady growth momentum of Sino-US relations. This will not only be a blessing to China and United States, but also a blessing to the world.

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