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Foreign Policy

Be Prepared for ‘Trump Diplomacy’

Feb 10 , 2017
  • Cui Liru

    Former President, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

Since Donald Trump assumed the US presidency, the most speculated and discussed diplomatic topic in China has been the new orienta-tion of Washington’s foreign policies.

Previously, China-US relations have tended to gradually return to their normal tracks after some vicissitudes in the opening days of each new administration, with the exception of the Obama presiden-cy. Things may be somewhat different this time around.

Soon after being elected, Trump broke a longstanding diplomatic protocol to receive a call from Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen, and made surprising comments on the “one China” principle via Twitter posts. Trump’s unpredictability has since been deemed a serious problem with tremendous damaging potential in future US China pol-icies. Immediately afterwards, media reports about Trump meeting Chinese entrepreneur Jack Ma inspired an optimistic impression in their Chinese audience that bilateral ties will be fine. This seems to indicate that the uncertainty about Trump is complicated and multi-faceted, and the foreign policy implications of which are yet to be fully appreciated even by himself.

However, the initial judgments made about Trump’s China policies are not groundless, either. Trump has long had a general assump-tion about the China in his mind: The present-day world has to deal with “two Chinas”. One is the “good China”, which has built large cities, provided hundreds of millions with housing and education, allowed its citizens to travel and receive education globally, and created a growing middle class. The other is the “bad China” that is less known to outsiders, where the government controls citizens’ access to information on the internet, severely punish people of different opinions, shuts down newspapers, de-tains dissidents, restrains individual freedom, carries out cyber attacks, and takes advantage of its influences to manipulate world economy. The above idea was quoted from Trump’s November 2015 book Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again. Trump an-nounced his decision to run for the US presidency in June 2015: The book was published as his political declaration and policy statement, which to a great extent reflects his basic ideas about some significant topics.

Trump’s aforementioned comments on China may be considered to be the foundation of his China policies. The so-called “two Chinas” outlook is actually defining Chinese economic development as “good” and political governance as “bad”. Over the years, in-cluding on the campaign trail, Trump has made different remarks on China, some good, some bad. In sum: With the “good China”, Trump is inclined to develop cooperation and strike deals; with the “bad China”, however, he believes the US must be tough, impose pres-sures on it, punish it, and make it submit. The above-mentioned phone call with Tsai and meeting with Ma typically reflected Trump’s different approaches to the “two Chinas” he sees.

Looking back on decades of US China policies, such two-pronged, Janus-faced approaches and policies have not been rare. But the newly inaugurated Trump administration has another extraordinary aspect that deserves our particular attention. On one hand, radi-cal nationalism is an outstanding characteristic of the grand trend of American politics and diplomacy is getting conservative and introverted; on the other hand, Trump’s personal characteris-tics are leading to the “Trumpianization” of US foreign policies.

The former drives the foremost principle of the Trump administra-tion’s foreign policies – America first. The latter clarifies the main approach to realizing “America first” – making deals in America’s favor. In short, that is, on a case-by-case basis, sepa-rately re-evaluate US diplomacy and foreign relations according to degrees of correlation with US interests, and negotiate deals with stakeholders in ways that best serve US purposes.

Trump’s logic is that the US is superior to any competitor in all aspects, and there is no reason to not accomplish deals in favor of the US. Past US administrations, during the Obama presidency in particular he believes, have failed to take advantage of such su-periority, and dared not take forceful moves to ask for high pric-es, resulting in US losses on multiple fronts. As the core idea and No. 1 principle of Trump’s diplomacy, “America first” seeks to correct past wrongs in tough, forceful ways. A series of Trump’s policy initiatives, from immigration to US-Russia rela-tions, NATO, TPP and climate change, can be understood accordingly. The US’ overall foreign policy strategy and long-term strategies have thus been brushed aside, and continuity of US foreign poli-cies is not an issue with Trump. That is particularly worrying to the internationalists in the Washington establishment who have long dominated US foreign policies. The executive orders Trump has issued after assuming office, including the withdrawal from the TPP, indicate he wants to honor his promises. It is therefore pre-dictable that subsequent contradictions and policy debates will be an important highlight in Washington’s diplomatic and strategic circles for a fairly long period of time.

The simplistic and arbitrary manner of “Trump diplomacy” is a double-edged sword which will negatively impact on US foreign pol-icies as it exerts substantial influences on other countries. As for Trump’s China policies, we have seen no comprehensive policy statement yet. Based on the above reading of his pragmatist policy logic, Trump has adopted a case-by-case approach, which is con-sistent with his “two Chinas” perception. It is worth noting that Trump diplomacy’s peculiar logic and approach will pose a serious challenge against the diplomatic framework that has been in exist-ence since the Nixon administration, under which the two countries have preserved stability overall under the principle of seeking common ground while shelving differences. Trump’s repeated and provocative remarks regarding “one China” have highlighted this dissonance with the now four-decades-old relationship.

Trump diplomacy regarding China reflects the impact of the anti-establishment, anti-elite political movement – as well as Trump’s “strongman” way of doing things. Its challenges for China-US re-lations are already different from the kind of explicit strategic changes we are accustomed to; instead, Trump may be overthrowing the diplomatic, political strategic understanding and ways of dealing with each other that China and the US have been developed over time and taken for granted. That is a new, unprecedented sit-uation.

We can still assume that the new US president’s foreign policies are yet to be finalized. But obviously, we can’t count on US poli-tics to return to normalcy any time soon, nor can we expect the 70-year-old Trump to change his personal style overnight.

People say we will first have to demonstrate composure. Yet where does composure come from? Mao Zedong insightfully pointed out: Know the state of matters, be determined, and employ an appropri-ate method. It is of foremost importance to conduct thorough re-search on the matters and the subject to be dealt with. To cope with a diplomatic approach featuring heavy-handedness, treacher-ousness, and recklessness, we need to demonstrate both strong re-solve and flexible methods, as long as a clear bottom line is drawn. We should ready ourselves for tough battles. Meanwhile, we should adhere to our own agenda and avoid being distracted by out-side provocations.

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