US President Donald Trump, Chinese President Xi Jinping and their wives Melania Trump and Peng Liyuan at the Mar-a-Lago estate. (AFP)
US President Donald Trump will visit China this November, as part of his Asia tour since taking office. Understandably, the trip is highly anticipated, even more so because neither President Trump nor Secretary of State Rex Tillerson nor any member of the present cabinet has offered a comprehensive Asia policy.
Immediately after Trump’s election victory, the course of China-US relations seemed uncertain. Nevertheless, in the first nine months of his presidency, both governments maintained smooth communications. President Xi Jinping said in his first phone conversation with President Trump that “cooperation is the only correct choice between China and the United States”. In their first face-to-face meeting in Mar-a-Lago in April, President Xi reiterated that there were a thousand reasons to make their relationship work, and not a single reason to harm it. During the Mar-a-Lago meetings, both sides agreed to set up four high level dialogue mechanisms: the diplomatic and security dialogue, the comprehensive economic dialogue, the law enforcement and cyber-security dialogue, and the social and people-to-people exchange dialogue. The inaugural sessions of the four dialogue mechanisms have yielded results. Senior officials, including the Chinese Foreign Minister and the US Secretary of State, maintained close communication and cooperation. Both countries signed a framework document establishing a dialogue mechanism for their joint military staffs. On the whole, China-US relations remain stable.
But some uncertainties still loom. Most notable is the Section 301 investigation launched by US trade representative Robert Lighthizer and authorized by President Trump against China. The Section 301 investigation focuses on technology transfer and intellectual property disputes. This investigation has raised concerns about where this relationship is headed.
A major objective of Trump’s visit will be to reduce uncertainty in bilateral ties. When Secretary Tillerson visited China in March, he referred to the three principles of major power relations (non-conflict, non-confrontation, and win-win cooperation) put forward by the Chinese. This indicates a consensus between the two countries on developing their relationship. Further developments will be closely watched.
Recent years have seen rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula. The North Korea nuclear issue presents the most pressing security threat to the Northeast Asia region. President Trump has publicly renounced the Obama administration’s policy of strategic patience in favor of maximum pressure to force the DPRK to abandon its nuclear program.
The Trump administration has been sending mixed and incoherent messages on the issue. President Trump, Secretary Tillerson, and Defense Secretary Mattis expressed different positions on different occasions, indicating a lack of consensus within the cabinet. Stakeholders, including China and Russia, have held rounds of consultations. China and Russia proposed a pragmatic and flexible approach underpinned by dual-suspension, that is, suspension of military exercises between the US and South Korea in return for the suspension of North Korea’s nuclear program. This approach offers a viable roadmap to build consensus, and thus enables all parties to return to the negotiating table. But the proposal has not yet been recognized by the Trump administration. The DPRK issue will be discussed during Trump’s visit to China.
The ultimate goal should simply be denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. In his address at the UN General Assembly, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi explicitly said that China holds firm to this position, but at the same time it will not allow war or chaos on the Korean Peninsula. To put things into perspective, denuclearization may be elusive in the immediate future, so the present focus should be on managing the situation effectively, in order to diffuse tensions and increase certainty, paving the way for peaceful solutions to the crisis. The military deployment by the US only serves to escalate tensions in the region.
The loss of American jobs featured prominently in President Trump’s speeches on the campaign trail. “Buy and Hire American” was one of his maxims. Trade will be a major dimension in his upcoming visit. China-US trade is characterized by both cooperation and competition. On the one hand, the two countries are increasingly interdependent in trade, investment, and finance. On the other, as China moves up the value chain as a manufacturing powerhouse, competition between China and the US will rise. The trade deficit between the two countries is a fact. Both countries must work together in the pursuit of more balanced trade，and China’s commitment to the One Hundred Day Plan embodies such an effort. Both sides must meet each other halfway. China should further open up its market, and the US should further reduce export restrictions and investment barriers against China. Trade war is not an option, as it will only harm the interests of both sides. In the 1990s, three major intellectual property disputes broke out between China and the US, each bringing the two countries closer to the brink of trade war. Fortunately, both sides rose above the challenge and settled the disputes sensibly. Since both countries are members of the WTO, WTO rules and regulations should prevail in the event of a dispute.
In 1784, the first ship to travel from the United States to China was called the ______, and began the trading relationship between the two countries.
1. Empress of China
The Empress of China was the first American ship to reach China, and carried goods such as camlet and ginseng. It was built in 1783, and brought a representative from the American government to the Canton province of China.
After rounds and rounds of consultations, the two countries reached an agreement on a Bilateral Investment Treaty, or BIT. If and when a BIT is concluded, over 100 industries in China will be open to US businesses, including automobile, banking, chemicals, and energy. When that happens, US investment in China will receive a significant boost, paring down the trade deficit and contributing to a more balanced trade relationship. Resumption of BIT negotiations is of vital importance.
There are many other issues on the minds of both leaders. One of them is the Taiwan issue. This issue concerns China’s core interests, but some in the US Congress are pushing for elevated relations with Taiwan, through military port calls and visits by high-ranking officials. It has undermined the “One China” policy, and China will not sit idly by. The US should refrain from sending wrong signals on the Taiwan issue. China’s involvement in the Iranian nuclear deal is a testament to its deep engagement in major international issues. President Trump’s decision not to certify Iran’s compliance risks derailing the deal. This move was not well received by China, which is expected to support the deal.
President Trump’s upcoming visit is an important occasion to chart the course for China-US relations, and presents an opportunity to inject new impetus for a sound and stable relationship between the two countries.