The Unites States has just sworn in its 45th President, albeit amidst protests and even chaos in Washington D.C., marking probably one of the most divisive elections since the Vietnam War. President Trump and his administration, without doubt, will bring quite an impact on international relations. We should consider all these in the context of the fallout of 2008 financial crisis, as well as the perennial political rivalry between the Republican and the Democratic parties, which combined to prompt the grassroots and the public to vent mounting discontent against the establishment elites in the US. Meanwhile, the Wall Street and military complex groups have taken up the slack, and have come to the fore after having pulled the strings behind the scenes for decades. President Trump has shown political acumen at leveraging the combined prowess of these two groups to build up his unfolding presidency.
On the other side of the Pacific, China is changing fast, presenting a more proactive face in both regional and international affairs, and assuming more responsibilities as a major power. In parallel with its growing economic power, China’s military power — land, air and sea — is also on the rise, with new models of fighter jets, vessels and missiles deployed. China has remained poised in the face of external challenges, and stayed unperturbed and level-headed in its responses.
While we consider China-US relations, a truth must be reckoned with: The old balance of power between the two countries is no longer, and a new balance is still in the making. The competition between the two countries in security and trade arenas has intensified. Now, in addition to being a manufacturing power, China has set up the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the New Development Bank, representing a leadership role that China is gradually assuming. That prompts anxiety in the US that China’s ascendancy may come at the expense of the US. On the security front, the South China Sea issue has put the two countries on opposite sides with no signs of compromise, with China being adamant in defending its legitimate maritime rights and interests, and the US claiming to safeguard its freedom of passage on the sea. Now with the Trump administration in the equation, the picture will only become more complicated and have implications on overall China-US relations.
First, China will be seen as the primary rival by the Trump administration. Though Dr. Kissinger has cautioned President Trump to strike a balance between China and Russia, instead of throwing down the gauntlet against two powers at the same time, the Trump administration has shown an inclination in favor of Russia. But we need to bear in mind US’s plan to shift its strategic rivalry focus towards China has only laid dormant since the Cold War. With occurrences such as the 9/11 attack and the following 10-year anti-terrorist war, the Arab Spring and the crisis over Ukraine, the US simply could ill afford to trigger such a strategic policy shift against China. So it is fair to say the recent change in US foreign policy against China may well be an undercurrent that has long existed in the US, rather than being driven by Trump’s personal intention.
Second, cooperation between the two countries may be further strengthened. China will not sit on its hands while the US shifts its policy gravity against China. True that the “Make America Great Again” strategy may work against China-US cooperation in one way or another, but a more fundamental competition lies in each country’s need to put its own house in order and continue to grow and prosper. In the meanwhile, China and the US share a broad range of common interests, especially in trade and economic cooperation. The two economies are highly complementary with China operating at the mid to low end of the international value chain, while the US operates at the upper end. Two-way trade cooperation still has great potential.
Third, structural conflicts will become more prominent, but both sides will seek compromise with each other. President Trump is likely to run the country as a mega company, with reaping profits and protecting US interests as the key objectives. See-saw bargaining and negotiations in order to extract compromise from China will be the norm, giving rise to trade frictions between the two countries. On the other hand, President Trump is less ideological, and a business or deal-making mentality may prove helpful to China-US relations. The key is to build on and explore overlapping interests and converging points for trade cooperation.
Fourth, new mechanisms for communication may be developed, and bilateral forums for cooperation may prevail over multilateral ones. Trump bases his opposition to globalization on the belief that it undermines US hegemony and supremacy in the world, and that it steals manufacturing jobs away from the US. So Trump will focus on attracting manufacturing jobs back to the US, but he may also put bilateral negotiations with China at the front and center of his trade agenda. The same approach may apply to the Bilateral Investment Treaty, and thus quicken negotiations given the treaty’s unrivalled importance.
With President Trump taking office, the policy course on both the domestic and foreign policy front in US will become more clear-cut and straightforward, and China will continue forging forward on its path of development. The two countries will brace for a period of adaptation and adjustment in seeking a new balance in their bilateral ties. While the process runs its due course, frictions may wax and wane, but China will respond to the evolving situation and adapt to the US political, economic and security policy changes to ensure that bilateral ties remain on an even keel.