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Foreign Policy

U.S.-China Relations on the Edge of Crisis

Sep 18 , 2017
  • Carla Freeman

    Director of the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins SAIS

The trajectory of relations between the United States and China is more uncertain today than at any time since the two countries normalized ties in 1979.  The relationship between the two countries has always been complex, involving shared purposes and aspirations but also deep differences in core interests and values. Historically, these challenges have been navigated through multiple channels in addition to direct communications between heads of state, including regular interactions between various agencies of the two governments, often led by policymakers with deep international expertise. Over the last decade, China’s emergence as a leading global economic power with an increasingly globalized military reach has only added new challenges to bilateral interactions

Under the Trump administration, however, rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula have injected additional uncertainty into the relationship. Since the Mar-a-Lago conference between Presidents Trump and Xi, it has become apparent that the crux of U.S. policy is to pressure China to curb North Korea’s nuclear program; Pyongyang has become the pivot on which Washington’s policies towards Beijing turn. Regardless of whether China is willing to, or capable of, playing a decisive role in restoring calm to Korea, placing Kim Jong Un at the center of the world’s most important bilateral relationship risks much— including the future of the U.S.-China relationship itself.  Can U.S.-China relations weather the crisis that is emerging in its relations over North Korea’s nuclear testing?  If so, what other significant tests of the relationship lie ahead? Are there opportunities for the two countries to manage these and find a way to sustain constructive ties during increasingly challenging times?

Expectations and disappointment

Donald Trump’s election to the U.S. presidency was met with more optimism than anxiety in Beijing. After several years of rising Sino-American tensions, centered in, but eclipsing, an increasingly militarized western Pacific, many Chinese leaders hoped that the election of a transactionally-minded ‘Dealmaker-in-Chief” to the Oval Office could open the door to a new mode of bilateral Sino-U.S. interaction. A transactional approach might provide a respite from a dynamic that seemed increasingly destined for confrontation.  Given Trump’s expected prioritization of counter-terrorism in U.S. security policy, the diminution of human rights in U.S. foreign policy, and the elevation of economic dimensions and, perhaps foremost, his longstanding suspicion of Cold War-era U.S. alliances (especially with Japan) and hostility to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Chinese leaders could envision movement under the new American leadership toward a U.S. accommodation of Beijing’s interests in an equitable new model of great power relations.

Despite a North Korean nuclear test in September 2016, few observers in Beijing or in Washington predicted that curbing North Korea’s nuclear program would effectively come to monopolize the Trump administration’s priorities vis-à-vis China or dominate the president’s foreign policy agenda. A succession of missile tests by Pyongyang, begun soon after Trump took office, proved outgoing President Obama’s warning to Trump—that North Korea was likely to become the most urgent challenge facing the United States – prescient. Ironically, Trump had identified North Korea’s nuclear program as a major threat and laid out his preferred response to its nuclearization nearly two decades earlier. In his 2000 book The America We Deserve, Trump had written that as president, he would not hesitate to call for a preemptive strike against North Korea if negotiations failed to dissuade Pyongyang from developing nuclear weapons. As a candidate for president in 2016, Trump criticized his opponent, Hillary Clinton, for failing to curtail North Korea’s nuclear program during her tenure as Secretary of State.  He pointed to China as the key to “reining in” North Korea and made clear that he believed that China had tremendous influence over North Korean security policy and that U.S.-China economic ties therefore formed a lever with which to force Pyongyang to suspend its nuclear program. As Trump stated less than a year before taking office, "I would put a lot of pressure on China because economically we have tremendous power over China ... China can solve [the North Korea] problem with one meeting or one phone call."

At the “Citrus Summit” in Mar-a-Lago in April 2017, China’s President Xi sought to both recalibrate President Trump’s expectations about Chinese leverage on Pyongyang and also expand the aperture of his host’s attention to the broad array of issues animating U.S.-China ties. As Xi commented, there are “a thousand reasons to get China-U.S. relations right, and not one reason to spoil the China-U.S. relationship.” After a brief lesson in Sino- Korean relations from Xi, Trump’s tweets suggested that he had reconsidered the extent to which China could influence North Korea—“it’s not what you would think.”  However, as North Korean provocations intensified, it became clear that Trump continued to believe that, even if it might take more than a single call or meeting, Beijing could “do a lot more.”

In reality, as writings by China’s own experts make clear, China has never been prepared to pursue the kinds of actions against North Korea that Trump hoped to pressure it to take for several reasons: Beijing has never seen regime collapse as an acceptable price for denuclearization. It assesses the cascade of security challenges that could result as too risky—from a destabilizing flood of refugees across the long border China shares with North Korea to the hazards of “loose nukes” and the danger of wider conflict. Chinese policymakers have historically supported sanctions aimed at pressuring North Korea to the negotiation table, but have never adopted the U.S. view of sanctions as a means of coercing states to change their behavior, especially if the target of sanctions believes that its core interests are at stake. China’s own historical experience with U.S.-led containment offered Beijing a lesson in how self-reliance can be made a national political virtue and countries can subsist under autarkic economic conditions; Chinese policymakers are typically more sensitive than Americans to the ways in which North Korea is anesthetized to the pain of economic punishment. Finally, China would far prefer a North Korea friendly to Beijing (preserving the North’s strategic buffer role) with “normal” economic ties to the international community to a North Korea in chaos—or united under a Seoul government that maintains close security relations with the United States.

Underlying Beijing’s approach to North Korea’s nuclear program, as well as Sino-American disagreement regarding the nature of the threat, is the belief that Pyongyang’s behavior is driven by fear rather than by belligerence. Chinese leaders generally give credence to North Korea’s professed rationale for developing nuclear weapons: that they are meant to deter U.S.-led military action aimed at regime change. (During the height of the Cold War, Kim Il Sung began North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons to deter the U.S. from both Moscow and Beijing— assistance the Soviets briefly provided but that Mao Zedong declined from the first.) In Beijing’s view, only improved relations between the U.S. and North Korea can resolve the existential insecurity that drives North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Xi’s response to Trump in their phone conversation after the September 3, 2017 nuclear test was consistent with China’s longstanding outlook. In response to Trump’s attempts to secure a stronger Chinese commitment to North Korean denuclearization, Xi informed the U.S. president that Beijing was already doing all it could do constructively pressure its neighbor. This meant, of course, that Beijing was doing all it could do to pressure Pyongyang without undermining its own interest in maintaining North Korean stability. Although Beijing banned imports of North Korean iron ore, iron, lead, and coal in August 2017, China remains its neighbor’s economic lifeline. After North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test in September, Beijing voted in favor of the harshest set of sanctions imposed on Pyongyang to date; however, it worked with Russia to ensure that these sanctions were significantly weaker than the total ban on international oil exports to North Korea sought by Washington. U.S. frustration with the seriousness of China’s commitment to denuclearization has increased the tension in China’s tightrope walk between maintaining a working relationship with the U.S. and protecting its interests on the Korean Peninsula. For example, the U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin threatened to restrict Chinese access to the U.S. financial system if Beijing failed to fully enforce UN sanctions against its neighbor. Similarly, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, dismissed Beijing’s “freeze for freeze” proposal, which called for a suspension of the North’s nuclear testing in exchange for a suspension of U.S.-South Korean military exercises, as “insulting” for the risks entailed to U.S. and South Korean security.

Even if the Korean crisis is defused, the degree to which U.S.-China relations can weather the fallout from American disappointment with Beijing remains unclear. For now, the 19th Party Congress, marking the start of Xi Jinping’s second five-year term and the consolidation of his leadership, and President Trump’s anticipated visit to China in November are steadying the relationship. However, once these are no longer reasons for China to dulcify disagreements with the U.S., friction is likely to resurface. Existing Sino-American flashpoints remain as incendiary as ever, including Chinese ambitions for reunification with Taiwan and differences over territorial and maritime governance issues in the East and South China Sea. There is also the concern that President Trump’s economic nationalism could transform a historical area of bilateral cooperation into another source of conflict. Trump has already authorized the U.S. Trade Representative’s office to initiate an investigation into Chinese trade practices, the precursor to potential retaliatory trade actions against China.

Form follows function

Since President Trump’s election, Chinese policymakers have sought to adapt to his particularly unpredictable style of leadership. So far, President Xi has been ready to pick up the phone when Donald Trump calls–something he is not always willing to do when world leaders place a call, as President Park learned when she unsuccessfully sought an emergency consultation with Xi over North Korea’s fourth nuclear test. Historically, good personal rapport between U.S. and Chinese leaders has proven invaluable to the resolution of bilateral crises. President George H. W. Bush used the personal relationships he had cultivated with Chinese leaders when serving in the U.S. Liaison Office in Beijing in the early 1970s to mitigate the damage to U.S.-China relations following Tiananmen. During the first international crisis of his son’s administration, the April 2001 EP-3 incident, escalation was averted in part because President George W. Bush also saw top-level ties as important in managing situations where the facts on the ground may be hard to sort through.[2]

But in Trump’s personal calls to Xi Jinping, a modus operandi traditionally reserved for crisis management has come to play an outsized role in U.S.-China relations. Other senior officials are certainly engaging with counterparts in China and professional civil servants continue to carry out routine bilateral exchanges and long-established programs. However, there is no unifying strategic vision for the relationship. This is reflected structurally in the absence of a cabinet member or other senior official charged by the president with coordinating the China U.S.-China portfolio. Without such a vision or coordinating structure, the administration’s policy coordination has suffered and members of the Trump administration often speak with different—and occasionally contradictory—voices regarding U.S. policies towards China. This undermines Chinese officials’ confidence in the ability of ostensibly official U.S. interlocutors to speak authoritatively, and encourages Beijing to assign tremendous analytical weight to the president’s occasionally disjointed, off-the-cuff, and contradictory tweets and public statements. Moreover, Trump’s willingness to offer public quick-takes risks a tweet eliciting an emotional outcry from the Chinese populace difficult for the Chinese leadership to quell, irrespective of Sino-American interests. Managing a relationship between great powers requires a careful strategic approach, ideally coordinated across multiple domestic interests on both sides. The idiosyncratic way in which the U.S.-China relationship is currently being conducted puts it at risk of becoming hijacked by single issues and crises, like the one unfolding on the Korean Peninsula.

Constructive transactionalism?

At the time of writing, how the crisis between the U.S. and North Korea will play out is uncertain. In the absence of a commitment to stabilize the situation as a first step toward curbing the further development of nuclear weapons by North Korea and the long, uncertain road toward denuclearization, military escalation is a real danger. Chinese experts perceive the chances for U.S. preemption as increasingly high and are preparing for a crisis. The U.S. and China must urgently coordinate their contingency planning for this potential, and China should consider assuming a greater responsibility for basic North Korean security in order to strengthen Pyongyang’s confidence that its sovereignty will be safeguarded.

Just as importantly, the nature of U.S.-China relations needs to be converted from crisis management to managed mode. On the U.S. side, the appointment of a point person at the White House with the authority to coordinate China policy across agencies is a critical first step.  However, it seems likely both that President Trump will not alter his basic leadership style and that Beijing will be less tolerant of that style after the 19th Party Congress and the completion of Trump’s visit this year. Given the likelihood that the next few months represent an important window of opportunity, is there any way that the two countries can set a course for constructive outcomes in the immediate term in order to prevent the bilateral relationship from becoming a source of international instability? 

One promising approach to a more positive bilateral dynamic lies in embracing Trump’s intrinsic transactionalism. Such an approach would recommend that, ahead of President Trump’s visit to China, the two countries should focus on setting a series of high-profile goals for bilateral cooperation, which might include agreements on substantial projects aimed at addressing domestic challenges as well as international issues of mutual interest. On the economic front, infrastructure development both in the United States and along the Belt & Road scheme envisioned by China is one point of entry. In the security dimension, joint counternarcotic, counterterror, and natural disaster response exercises or programs could provide valuable bilateral ballast. Finally, in the absence of climate change as a key area for policy cooperation at the global level, the two countries need to identify an area of cooperation that has both high planetary and symbolic value—for example, cooperating on civilian space activities. Focusing on achieving a series of positive transactions could generate positive momentum in the relationship even as policymakers in both states grapple with areas of discord and are buffeted by crises both familiar and unexpected. 


[1] Carla Freeman, PhD is associate research professor of China Studies and director of the Foreign Policy Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington D.C.

[2] That former CINPAC Admiral Joseph Prueher was U.S. Ambassador to Beijing was also important as Prueher was able to deal with both the Chinese Foreign Ministry and Chinese military.

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