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Foreign Policy

Recalibrating China-U.S. Relations after the Midterm Elections

Nov 13 , 2018
  • Sun Chenghao

    Assistant Research Fellow, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

It is not so surprising to see the end of the one-party power structure in Washington. Democrats successfully flipped the House and Republicans held the control of the Senate after this year’s midterm elections.

Trump’s post-midterm challenge would be more complicated when he faces the new dynamic in the Congress. Since domestic policies rather than foreign policies are on the ballot in the midterm elections, the changing power in Congress will have limited impact on China-U.S. relations.

On one hand, the current U.S. overall China policy, based on the failure of the past decades of engagement, is almost a bipartisan consensus and taking a hardline approach on China is becoming a new form of political correctness in Washington. Taking control of the House, Democrats might become even more hawkish towards China on issues such as trade and human rights, and possibly oppose Donald Trump’s concessions to China, just like they battled with the White House over the ZTE ban.

On the other hand, with the House controlled by Democrats, the bar for supporting the new trade deals reached by the U.S. and other countries would be higher. For instance, the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement must be approved by Congress before it can take effect, but with a majority, the Democrats could possibly scuttle the deal and then Trump would lose some leverage when negotiating a trade deal with China.

Since the midterm elections are over and President Trump might enter another period of campaigning for the 2020 U.S. presidential election, the Trump administration should prevent China-U.S. relations from being hijacked by domestic politics. Both countries should find a new approach for dealing with each other and recalibrate the bilateral relationship before it is too late.

The priority now for the two countries is stopping the negative spillover effect of the trade conflict even if a trade deal is hard to reach.

The military-military relationship is now challenged by three incidents which have undermined its role as a stabilizing factor in the bilateral relationship. First, China was disinvited from participating in RIMPAC exercises after it participated twice previously in 2014 and 2016. Second, the US State Department imposed sanctions on China’s Equipment Development Department and its director. Third, less than one week after the U.S. approved arms sales to Taiwan in September, the U.S. sent its guided-missile destroyer again to challenge China’s interests in the South China Sea.

The military-military relations should be a solid cornerstone of the relationship. Economic competition might possibly lead to healthy results but military competition will often bring dangers and risks. Only dialogue and cooperation can mitigate the distrust between the countries and avoid an arms race.

The two militaries should set up more practical dialogues on different levels with candid discussions on how to avoid military conflicts. The resumption of the Diplomatic and Security Dialogue is a good start and the two countries need more talks between the PLA’s Theater Commands and U.S. regional Commands. On sticky issues like the South China Sea, the two countries should at least have some sort of tacit consensus on dealing with it.

Besides the security issues, to make matter worse, the Trump administration is taking advantage of anxieties and is “domesticizing” the bilateral relationship by demonizing China’s role in U.S. domestic politics. After Trump’s groundless accusation of China’s interference in U.S. elections, Vice President Mike Pence again broadened the attack on China for meddling in U.S. politics without any solid evidence in his speech at the Hudson Institute.

It is evident that, on people-to-people cultural and educational exchanges, the U.S. is taking much tougher policies towards China.

The U.S. Department of Justice ordered two Chinese media outlets, Xinhua and China Global Television Network, to register as foreign agents, ratcheting up the anti-China rhetoric. Some U.S. congressmen have repeatedly asked certain U.S. universities to cut ties with Confucius Institutes which “threaten U.S. national security”. It is also reported that the Trump administration once considered banning Chinese students from studying some subjects in the United States.

The turmoil in people-to-people or cultural exchanges will greatly affect the foundation of China-U.S. relations and the bad influence is difficult to reverse. The previous incidents or crises between the two countries are still far away from people’s daily life. But now the tensions between the two sides, from trade conflicts to accusations of “political interference”, would gradually change the public’s perceptions towards each other and create more misunderstandings for the two countries.

Making groundless accusations against China is not constructive to the bilateral relationship but only stir up mistrust and misperception. Both countries should learn to listen to each other instead of merely talking to each other. Without the pressure of the midterm elections, the Trump administration should send more balanced messages on China by senior officials, offsetting the negative impact of Pence’s previous speech on China-U.S. relations. At least the two countries should have some strategic reassurance like “no containment, no decoupling” and “respect world order, respect each other’s national interest”.

Most importantly, both countries should have patience and wisdom to go beyond the trade conflicts and cherish the upcoming Xi-Trump meeting at G20 to explore a new strategic framework for not only stabilizing the relationship, but also recalibrating it in the long run to accommodate each other’s interests in the world.

 

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