In international relations and diplomacy, words mean something, rhetoric is important. Behind words, usually there is deep thinking and calculation, and sometimes what follows the change of rhetoric is the change of policy. This kind of subtlety has always been there in US policy toward China for decades. That’s why when Donald Trump, as president-elect, suggested that Washington’s “One China” policy is negotiable, it shocked people a lot. Many in both countries thought he was going to touch the “red line”, shaking the foundation of China-US relations. But later, during a February phone call with his Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping, by saying that he will honor the “One China” policy, Trump showed he basically wanted to stay in the longtime policy framework when it comes to relations with China. That was a big relief to the outside world. With Trump being in office for only two months, it’s still premature to tell what his China policy exactly will be like. People are waiting to see both the grand strategy and specific policies on different issues, from purely bilateral ones to those other parties involved. Q high degree of unpredictability is expected for Trump’s presidency, at least for its early months, and he and his team are kind of hardening this expectation by sending mixed signals to China.
During his recent visit to Beijing, the new US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, told the press that the bilateral relationship between the two countries has been guided by the principle of “non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation”, which are the exact words used by China to define the Sino-US “new type of major power relations” in the past few years — phrasing that was never completely repeated by the Obama administration. So what Tillerson said can be interpreted as an endorsement of China’s idea about the direction of the development of bilateral relations, and it is definitely welcomed here in China and gives people reason to be optimistic. Unless you forget what Trump himself said just days before on Twitter, “China has done little to help”, referring to China’s role in the North Korea nuclear issue. That stance is totally unacceptable to China. An immediate neighbor to North Korea, China has always closely watched the developing situation of the Peninsula, working hard over many years to try to solve the problem peacefully. American and China have different opinions over North Korea, but for a long time, generally the two countries have coordinated their positions through all kinds of channels and have worked together to deal with the issue. So saying “China has done little” is just not true, and those words coming out of the mouth of a US president while his top diplomat was coming to China to talk about the issue really doesn’t help in any way at such a critical moment.
It is quite natural for people to ask why the Trump administration is saying widely different things on China policy, contradicting itself in such an obvious way. What do Trump and his team really think about China? Is the language still important as it has been in Trump’s China policy, given his personal style and the way he talks? It seems now there are more questions than answers, but let’s just try to list some possibilities.
It could be that Trump and his senior officials are still not familiar with the vocabulary of foreign policy and they just don’t know precisely what the words they used mean in a relationship as important and complicated as that between China and the US. There might be a lack of expertise currently with the new administration on foreign policy, partly because of its problem with the so-called establishment — people who are more likely to appreciate the delicacy in policy than others. There are also a lot of vacancies at the operational level in the government, officials in charge of specific regions and issues are largely not in place. So Tillerson might not be aware of the back and forth between China and the Obama administration on the definition and exact meaning of Sino-US “new type of major-power relations”, and Trump just may not have a good idea about the long-term process of dealing with the North Korea nuclear issue.
It could also be that Trump and his top diplomats just have different understandings on China and there is not enough coordination within the administration. This could have happened on the question of whether China is a “currency manipulator”. Recently, Trump and Secretary of the Treasury Mnuchin have expressed different viewpoints on this issue. It is also pretty much the case for the administration’s Russia policy. Senior officials like Secretary of Defense Mattis and CIA Director Pompeo said things different than their boss on Russia, taking harder lines than the president did. Trump and his team haven’t had time to make thorough policy reviews. It takes time for the administration to learn to speak in one voice.
Another possibility is Trump and his senior officials understand quite well what their words mean but they just don’t care much. Trump wants to be seen as a spokesperson of America’s “grassroots voters”, and he wants to be tough on the international stage. Paying too much attention to details doesn’t serve an image like this. So he and his team members could use words in a looser way because they have a different diplomatic style from previous administrations, and are not so sensitive as their predecessors when it comes to policy language. As Trump may have found, saying wild things doesn’t always cost you a lot.
There are plenty of examples in Sino-US relations that delicacy of words was the object of high attention. A very small change in language could mean significant adjustment in practice. However, Trump is a different US president. The tone of Tillerson’s visit was quite good in terms of the bilateral relationship, but this doesn’t help to ease China’s anxiety about American deploying the THAAD system in South Korea. By the same token, despite Trump’s “China has done little” rhetoric, the US side still believes China is indispensible in solving the North Korea nuclear problem and is still having dialogue with China to seek cooperation between the two countries.
To make future cooperation possible, China and the Trump administration need to better understand each other. China needs to be more familiar with the style of Trump and his team. For those who are used to looking into nuance of language in US China policy, rules may have changed. So let’s pay more attention to what kind of deals the two countries will cut and how the deals are implemented, instead of what kind of words Trump and US officials will use. As an experienced businessman, Trump may not use words as accurately as a typical politician, which sometimes is his strength rather than weakness. Words can be used as a tool in negotiations in different ways.
For future China-US relations, more important than words are deals. We don’t expect Trump to change the way he uses words, we just hope he will honor the deals he makes with China.