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Foreign Policy

Summit Outlook: What Can Be Expected of China-U.S. Relations

Mar 20 , 2017
  • Sun Chenghao

    Assistant Research Fellow, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

About two months into U.S. President Donald Trump’s presidency, China-U.S. relations have already undergone a quick cycle of twists and turns, from potential friction on the Taiwan question, the common understandings on which basically laying the political foundation of the bilateral relationship, to a possible summit in the first half of 2017.

Despite Trump’s early confusing attitude on the one-China policy and Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson’s aggressive words on South China Sea, the two countries still maintained effective communication channels to ensure a stable start of the bilateral relationship. In February, Trump sent a letter to President Xi Jinping, seeking to work with China and build constructive relations. Then the phone call between the two leaders reaffirmed the one-China policy, the most important political precondition for the two countries to establish diplomatic relations.

Now, according to U.S. media, the two leaders are expected to hold their first summit in Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s private estate in Florida in early April. On March 18-19, Tillerson’s visit to China was also an opportunity to help ensure a successful summit. Considering the current regional and global situation, the timing is critical for both countries. The summit should be an opportunity to ease uncertainties and misunderstandings while securing new cooperation between the two sides.

The priority on the list might be the DPRK issue. It is widely agreed in the U.S. that the development of the DPRK’s nuclear and ICBM capabilities have posed an existential threat to the country, and the U.S. government should use any method to terminate the DPRK’s projects. The Trump administration is currently reviewing its policy towards the DPRK, pondering options from stronger sanctions to regime change to military strikes.

It is unclear whether U.S. policy toward the DPRK could be nailed down or even become much clearer when the summit is held. If not, it will be extremely difficult for China to cooperate due to the uncertainties on the U.S. side. The U.S. will certainly continue to push China to pressure more on the DPRK to change its behavior. The U.S. might identify certain Chinese banks or enterprises and force them to restrain from doing business with the DPRK by the threat of imposing “secondary sanctions”. But for China, the need to maintain political stability and avoid humanitarian disaster in the DPRK make it hard to reach consensus with the U.S. on the issue.

On the Taiwan question, it is almost certain that the Trump administration will not again challenge the one-China policy. However, Trump added “at the request of President Xi” before his confirmation of one-China policy in the statement of White House after the phone call, which to some extent left leeway for his future policy. It will poison the bilateral relationship if the U.S. wriggles past a half-hearted commitment to one-China policy by selling more sophisticated arms to Taiwan or encouraging more senior officials, especially military leaders, to visit the island. President Trump should use the face-to-face summit as an opportunity to reiterate faithful commitment to the one-China policy so as to prevent the basic political foundation from shaking again.

Trade and economic issues are also potential uncertainties that will possibly lead to serious frictions between the two countries. From President Trump and his inner circle member Peter Navarro to cabinet officials like Wilbur Ross, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, all of them hold strong attitudes towards China in this field, believing after joining WTO, China has created imbalances in the bilateral trade and economic relationship instead of embarking on the path the U.S. had envisioned.

It is noteworthy that one of several campaign promises President Trump did not deliver on immediately was harsh policies towards China on trade. But it it doesn’t mean that day will never come. Under the main theme of “America First”, the U.S. will seek reciprocity by addressing imbalances in bilateral relations and China is still waiting for the other shoe to drop.

There is still a silver lining. The summit will play a significant role in shaping the bilateral relationship among uncertainties at the very early stage. Days before Tillerson’s visit to China, Acting Assistant Secretary of State Susan Thornton said the U.S. is “pursuing a results-oriented relationship with China”. This brand-new phrase from the Trump administration is a relatively positive signal.

It shows the U.S. is considering a new framework to guide the bilateral relationship, which the previous administration failed to do. However, “results-oriented” is too vague to guide such a complex bilateral relationship. It’s better to define the relationship in a more clear-cut concept like “results-oriented partnership”. It will be very conducive to future relations if the two sides could build a guiding framework acceptable to both sides after the summit.

Besides the top-level design, the two countries still need effective channels and process to manage the daily matters. The traditional high-level official exchanges like Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED), Consultation on People-to-People Exchange (CPE), Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade (JCCT) should be kept. Certain reforms are required, such as streamlining the mechanisms to make them more effective and “results-oriented”. It will be extremely helpful if the two leaders could show their willingness to carry on the mechanisms during the summit.

In fact, China and the U.S. share common interests and areas of potential cooperation. For instance, China and U.S. could cooperate on infrastructure development. China can not only invest in the U.S. projects, helping the U.S. to initiate more projects and thus create more jobs, but also attract U.S. companies to participate in China’s domestic infrastructure projects. In addition, it is possible that the two countries could cooperate in third countries on building infrastructure through the Belt and Road Initiative or the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) if President Trump is willing to take a different position from his predecessor on these initiatives.

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