Against all expectations, Donald Trump achieved a strong victory in the U.S. election on 8 November. In roughly two months, he will take office as America’s next president. How are U.S.-China relations likely to fare under this unexpected new situation?
Naturally, the future is uncertain. Even so, based on what we know about Trump and his current advisors, three alternative paths appear possible: Befuddle, Muddle, and Huddle. Befuddle is the most likely, Muddle is the second most, and Huddle is the least.
Befuddle means to confuse, perplex, baffle, or even make stupid. Unfortunately, there is a significant probability that befuddlement may come to characterize U.S.-China relations.
On the one hand, Donald Trump’s instincts, by all accounts, appear pragmatic. He desires to work with the leaders of Russia and China to get along. He believes in prestige, and wants other nations to give it to America, but seems unwilling to bestow it in return. For status-conscious leaders, like Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, this really matters. China desires to be treated by the U.S. as a “big power” (daguo), a phrase originated by Premier Wen Jiabao after the financial crisis and picked up after Xi took office in late 2012. According to Xi, a “big power relationship” is one where great powers treat one another as equals, and respect each other’s core interests. Practically, this would mean not using America’s “bully pulpit” to humiliate China for its (supposed) domestic failings, not sacrificing the U.S.-China relationship on the altar of the Dalai Lama, and not making China appear weak in its Near Seas. Trump instead would negotiate deals with Xi on a personal ad hoc basis, and, as he is able, minimize the importance of foreign policy so he can rebuild the U.S. at home, his true passion.
On the other hand—and here is where the befuddlement starts—Trump is surrounding himself with “hawkish” advisors who are likely to work to prevent China from rising as an independent great power. These advisors believe the worst about Chinese intentions, seeing modern China as a sort of reincarnation of mid-twentieth century Japan.
Just earlier this year, John Bolton wrote an op-ed
for the Wall Street Journal in which he advocated playing the “Taiwan card” against China. Bolton said that the U.S. should threaten China with a “diplomatic ladder of escalation” to force China to “abandon its South China Sea bases.” If China refused, the U.S. would receive Taiwanese diplomats, and “ultimately” restore “full diplomatic recognition.” China would be forced to choose between the end of the One-China policy or its influence in its Near Seas.
Now, for those familiar with the intricacies of U.S.-China relations, this proposal is horrifically irresponsible. The chance that China would give in to such an American threat is close to zero. The almost certain reaction would be an intensive nationalist movement in China that would destroy more than forty years of relatively positive U.S.-China ties. A desperate China
would redouble its military investments, expand its outposts in the South China Sea, and seek alliances with Russia and Pakistan. Almost certainly, crises would develop between the U.S. and China in the South and East China Seas, and war would become likely.
Here’s where the befuddlement comes in again. According to multiple media reports
, Trump is considering Bolton for the position of Secretary of State. Bolton, a man who believes
“negotiation” is no better a government policy than “prayer,” would become America’s highest diplomat.
Other names reported to be under consideration for top national security and diplomacy posts include Newt Gingrich, Jeff Sessions, Bob Corker, Jim Talent, and Stephen Hadley. Of these, Gingrich is a self-described “hawk
” who sounds like he’s still living in the Cold War, Sessions has been a key supporter
of the Iraq War, and Talent believes
that America’s ability to trade freely is “at stake” in the South China Sea, that the U.S. has responded with insufficient strength to China’s “expansion” into its Near Seas—replacing America’s “rules-based system of international relations” with “hegemony—and contends that the U.S. should amp up the “pivot” to Asia, which he believes is failing for “want of power.” (Corker and Hadley tend to take more moderate positions, and will be discussed below.)
In other words, Trump is apparently surrounding himself with advisors who hold a decisively hawkish and ideological antipathy towards China, one he himself does not possess (for time constraints we won’t discuss other such advisors, Peter Navarro
chief among them). The likely outcome in a Trump Administration, accordingly, is a foreign policy in which outspoken hawkish advisors signal American aggression and do their best to alienate China while Trump attempts to reign in the worst of such rhetoric and make deals directly with foreign leaders. But one man can only do so much, and the contradictory signals are certain to befuddle foreign countries, China perhaps most of all.
Muddle—in the sense of “muddle through”—means to achieve some successes, but without much creativity or skill. This is the second most likely path for U.S.-China relations in a Trump Administration. Relations will remain stable, but no progress will be made to resolve the fundamental issues that are generating progressively worse relations between the two nations.
In the Muddle scenario, Trump would ultimately decide to appoint mainstream party insiders to his top foreign policy and national security posts. Such individuals would include Richard Hass, the long-time president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Bob Corker, or Stephen Hadley, George W. Bush’s former National Security Advisor. Such establishment figures would likely not be interested in “rocking the boat” in the U.S.-China relationship, but would rather continue the policies of the Bush and Obama Administrations. These policies, on which there is a strong bipartisan consensus in the U.S., can be called “congagement”: be stronger than China militarily—even in East Asia—but engage with China economically. In this scenario, Trump’s rhetoric about high tariffs on Chinese goods would be dismissed
as “campaign talk,” and the status quo would, with some polishing, be more or less preserved.
The downside of the Muddle approach is that U.S.-China relations will remain uncertain and conflictual. The basic problem with the status quo of congagement is that the U.S. “does not take into consideration the security interests of others,” as Fu Ying has observed
. Proponents of the status quo desire to maintain the U.S.’s status as the world’s only “great power,” and are opposed to China exercising additional influence and power in its own neighborhood. The result are such policies like the “pivot” to Asia, “Air Sea Battle,” which intended to preserve American military primacy in East Asia, and more intense international pressure on Chinese behavior deemed “deviant” by the Washington D.C. elite. As China grows more powerful, it will be less satisfied with this arrangement, and an intense arms race, already in embryo, may likely develop between the U.S. and China. The Muddle approach is not likely to start a war with China, but it will passively lead the two nations to walk down the road to war.
Huddle means to gather together in a group, have a discussion, exchange ideas, and make a decision. This is the least likely path U.S.-China relations will take, but paradoxically, the option that most reflects Trump’s personality.
In the Huddle scenario, Trump either ends up appointing less hawkish and ideological individuals to his administration, or he—somehow—creates an administration in which his will is absolutely imposed on that of his subordinates. The first option here is possible, but so far such moderate names have not been leaked to the press. Former Congressman Mike Rogers, the head of Trump’s national security transition team, is not likely to suggest such individuals, nor is Chris Christie, the overall head of the transition team, likely to approve them. The second option is on its face unlikely: shifting foreign policy on major issues requires cabinet, congressional, and ultimately popular support. An administration full of dissenters would also be one full of leaks and resignations.
That being said, if Trump were to manage to effect the Huddle option, a new U.S.-China détente would be within reach. As mentioned above, Trump would offer the Chinese respect, which could become a new “foundation of trust,” in Fu Ying’s words. The two nations could fashion a business-type relationship, oriented towards the mutual benefit of both countries. A looser American alliance structure would develop, and cooperation on global problems like Syria, Iraq, and financial stability would become possible, perhaps even common. As a commentator in the Global Times observes
, the two nations could end their “self-damaging competition” and seek to put the long-term relationship on sustainable terms. Practically, this would mean some sort of deal by which the U.S. stopped inserting itself into China’s territorial disputes in its Near Seas in exchange for China moderating its tactics.
Befuddle, Muddle, and Huddle represent three alternative futures. In the first, U.S.-China relations get worse. In the second, the status quo, which is by no means stable, is perpetuated. In the third, the two nations recognize and treat each other as Great Powers, respecting each other’s vital interests. Whichever path the two nations journey down will likely be determined by the kind of individuals Trump appoints to his administration. So far, for those who would prefer Huddle, the signs are not auspicious. Even so, there is still time, and perhaps Trump will indeed act to avoid Befuddlement or Muddlement.