Language : English 简体 繁體

China-US Give-and-Take Focused on Economic Issues and South China Sea

Jul 12 , 2017
  • Zheng Yu

    Professor, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences


On June 28, the US Senate Armed Services Committee adopted a new clause under the National Defense Authorization Act to allow US naval ships to make stops at ports in Taiwan and permit the US Pacific Command to receive ports of call by Taiwanese naval ships. On July 2, an Aegis destroyer of the US navy sailed within 12 nautical miles of Zhongjian Dao (Triton Island) in the Xisha Islands (Paracels). In the Chinese view, the two events were a reversal of the sound development of bilateral ties since the summit at Mar-a-Lago on April 6.

Actually the China-US relationship still follows certain inherent laws even behind such changing developments. The various China policy ideas and intentions as expressed on a series on general and more specific issues since President Donald Trump got elected and took office has all undergone readjustments to varying degrees, such as his tougher positions on the South China Sea, tendency to use coercive means such as sanctions on issues of trade balances and deviation from the basic one-China principle.

Now it seems that the tough approach on the South China Sea was more a campaign strategy. The quasi confrontation between the two navies around the making of a so-called arbitration award in July 2016 was sufficient to show that military deterrence would hardly change the Chinese policy towards the South China Sea. An outbreak of war between China and the US is unaffordable for either side and thus not operable. As such, the Trump administration has not done anything new.

Furthermore, Trump vowed to impose economic sanctions on China such as higher tariff rates, which proved to be much bleating and little wool making. On economic and trade issues, the US has resorted more to negotiations rather than sanctions. Obviously through their economic relations and trade, cheap means of livings and production from China have flowed into American market, lowering inflation rate and improving the real purchasing power of low-income households in America. More importantly, without fully tapping the large quantity of cheap labor and the complementing elements of the industrial chain in China by way of setting up plants and outsourcing, many technological innovations of the US would not have been commercialized for cost reasons. China-US economic cooperation supports many design, marketing, logistics, retail and financial services jobs in the US. Both countries will suffer if the US sanctions China. It is foreseeable that there will still be fierce gaming between the two countries on the questions of trade balance and market access, but more by way of mutual compromises and less through economic sanctions.

Additionally, there had been no new move before June 2017 by the US on its policy towards Taiwan since the phone conversation between Trump and the Taiwanese leader. Since the Mar-a-Lago meeting in particular, the Taiwan question has faded from the bilateral agenda. As Chinese economic and military power advances rapidly, it has become increasingly difficult for the US to influence the process and methods of China resolving the Taiwan question or the international space for Taiwan regime. The status of the Taiwan question has greatly diminished in China-US relations. The new plan of arms sales to Taiwan and this new Senate bill seem more to be playing the Taiwan card to exert pressure on China with regard to the South China Sea when the US does not have the ability to prevent by force Chinese conduct there.

Meanwhile, it is rather apparent that in the less than half-year since Trump took office, China-US cooperation in international affairs has developed rapidly. The two countries had an unprecedentedly profound cooperation on the DPRK nuclear issue. They talked about cooperation in rebuilding Iraq in their first diplomatic and security dialogue. It was quite eye-catching that at the dialogue the US welcomed China’s participation in rule-making in important strategic areas. The presence of the US Secretaries of State and Defense at the dialogue was also read as a sign of upgrading the diplomatic and security cooperation mechanism.

And by the way, the state of China-US ties is less and less affected by the posture of China-US-Russia triangular relationship. Russia’s uncompromising position on Ukraine has minimized the Trump administration’s leeway on lifting sanctions over and relaxing relations with Russia, particularly while the “Russia gate” continues. On the other hand, given the security demands of smaller Eastern European countries that directly border Russia, the US had to deploy US troops to Poland and other countries while demanding expense covered by NATO members. The European missile defense program is advancing persistently. These moves have rendered merely nominal the US-Russia anti-terror cooperation in Syria that had been planned for a long time and led to continued deterioration of US-Russia relations, thus making it impossible for the US to play the Russia card on its policy towards China. On the other hand, China-Russia anti-terror cooperation in Central Asia and understanding on the Belt and Road initiative are hardly useful for China strategically in its competition with the US. It is now a reality that China-US relations are less influenced by the Russian factor.

In the foreseeable future, conflicts of interests and policy collisions between China and the US will be mainly on economy, trade and South China Sea.                                  

You might also like
Back to Top