Before Donald Trump’s inauguration, the hope of preserving continuity in Sino-US relations was faint. In November and December of last year, then President-elect Trump leveled invective at the Chinese government for trade policy and took a congratulatory telephone call from Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen, signaling his lack of regard for the status quo.
The nomination of Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State and a bevy of Middle East conflict hands to security posts suggested that the administration would de-emphasize Asia policy. Appointments related to China lacked ideological coherence; the nominee for the US ambassadorship to China, Terry Branstad, is a pro-trade friend of President Xi Jinping, while advisors Peter Navarro and Michael Pillsbury could hardly be more hawkish.
The first month of Trump’s presidency has been a useful primer for Chinese officials, albeit an unpleasant one. Trump reaffirmed the United States’ recognition of the One China policy during a telephone call with President Xi, laying to rest China’s single greatest concern in the bilateral relationship. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has not confirmed that Trump’s acceptance of One China was a condition for the call taking place, but Xi’s prioritization of the subject almost certainly led to its resolution. As the Chinese have no doubt discovered, Trump is either unwilling or unable to manage multiple issues at once. Policy will be spearheaded by several different members of the administration, each with his own ideology and degree of influence with the president.
Chronic tweeting from the president oversells the depth of his substantive knowledge and the extent of his focus on foreign policy. What foreign leaders and diplomats can more reliably expect is to work behind the scenes with senior members of the administration on key issues. By and large, the Trump foreign policy team – particularly since the resignation of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn – is more representative of the Republican mainstream than the president. Consequently, foreign leaders may suggest delegating matters of delicacy or importance; Shinzo Abe joined Trump on the golf course while Finance Minister Taro Aso and Vice President Mike Pence worked out a framework for US-Japan economic cooperation.
China may find a receptive partner in Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has done his best to avoid any controversy during his first month. Tillerson struck a tough pose during his confirmation hearing, stating that China should not be allowed access to artificial islands in the South China Sea. However, those comments came as the Trump administration – and Trump, himself, mostly – laid out an aggressive stance with China. Since then, Tillerson has met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and spoken with State Councilor Yang Jiechi. The Chinese government has called these discussions productive, and they suggest that North Korea will be a starting point for bilateral cooperation.
North Korea’s February 12th ballistic missile test was timed to coincide with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit with Donald Trump in the United States. Receiving word of the launch during a dinner at Trump’s members-only club Mar-a-Lago in Florida, Trump and Abe huddled around screens to read the briefing as diners looked on. Trump’s response was uncharacteristically restrained; in his statement, he echoed Defense Secretary James Mattis in offering America’s support for Japan and refrained from mentioning North Korea. Whether the result of disinterest or strategy, Trump’s rare restraint on the issue of North Korea’s missile testing and nuclear program may prompt China to act alone. Where in the past, China raised its hackles, it has now opted to halt all coal imports from North Korea as punishment.
China was certainly watching the Trump-Abe meeting for cues on how the new president conducts himself with foreign leaders. A flashy resort weekend on the links showcased Trump’s brand of hosting, but it must have concerned the Chinese, who eschew such shows of informality. One wonders, for example, if Trump or his team are familiar with Chinese Communist Party Disciplinary Article 87, which banned golfing for party officials in 2015. Granted, Xi made golf legal again last April, but will Trump know as Obama did that it remains something of a faux pas? The first meeting between Trump and Xi could make for awkward optics, but Chinese officials can likely look forward to working with senior administration members on substantial issues behind the scenes: the back channel is now front and center.
The date of that meeting remains to be determined, and there will be ample opportunities to reverse the progress made over the past month. If he can keep from tweeting about North Korea, Trump may have a shot at bringing China to the table to help rein in Kim’s nuclear ambitions. But then, the president may speak out on trade policy or the South China Sea. This is an opportunity for China’s diplomats to set the tone for future dialogue, by taking the lead on North Korea after Trump held back.
The first month of Trump’s presidency, replete with American isolationism, is an open invitation for President Xi to bring China into a position of global leadership. On February 17th, Xi addressed a national security seminar, and called for Chinese guidance on security and in forging a new world order. From regional security to environmental initiatives, China has several avenues to an expanded international presence. With no revolutionary or military experience, Xi lacks the credentials that Mao and Deng used to reshape China’s domestic policy – instead, he has an opportunity to present his country to the global community as a model alternative to Trump’s “America First.”