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Foreign Policy

Will China-U.S. Ties Remain Stable?

Nov 14 , 2016
  • Shao Yuqun

    Director, Center for American Studies, SIIS

As the dust settles on the US general election, America prepares to enter the Trump era. What does this mean to China-US relations? Will the ties proceed steadily, or will there be abrupt changes? Is there a new “period of strategic opportunities” in China’s face? There won’t be immediate answers to theses questions.

Generally speaking, there are troubles in China-US relations at the beginning of each US presidency. When Bill Clinton assumed office, he linked human rights with trade, George W. Bush vowed to “do whatever it takes” to defend Taiwan. The relations appeared to have entered a “honeymoon” period after Barack Obama assumed office, yet it didn’t last, as frictions in the relationship suddenly took over as the US “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific has proceeded. Therefore we can’t exclude the possibility of new troubles in China-US ties after Donald Trump takes over, particularly because he pledged to label China as a currency manipulator, blamed China for “killing” US manufacturing, and promised to impose a 45% tariff on Chinese exports during his campaign. Though such campaign clamors may not all translate into policies, trade was a main topic in Trump’s campaign, and his proposals were significant to his ultimate win. President Trump will have to honor his promises. The Trump administration’s policies will thus result in more frictions in trade between the two countries.

With completely different philosophies from Obama’s, Trump believes climate problems are fabricated, sniffs at a “nuclear-free world”, has shown no interest in development issues and multilateral diplomacy. That means current China-US collaboration on such global concerns as climate change may come to a halt. Previously there had been the assumption that global governance may become a new strategic cornerstone for China-US relations. Yet when we carefully observe China-US interactions in global governance, we will see fundamental divergences in their ideas about global governance: their priorities differ, and their cooperation has been so inefficient that the achievements have done little to offset strategic mutual suspicion. With the US entering a Trump era, such possibilities may have already become an impossibility.

Future China-US interaction in the Asia-Pacific undoubtedly deserves profound attention. Many Chinese observers have been very excited about Trump’s dislike of Japan and disdain of the TPP. Indeed, Trump may not embrace “rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific”, but will his Asia-Pacific policies be essentially different from Obama’s? Foreign policy elites in both the Republican and Democratic parties support the TPP, those against it are the American working class, and Trump was responding to society’s underdogs. On Asia-Pacific security policies, about which both parties have considerable consensus while the average Joes care little, will Trump thoroughly overthrow Obama’s policies? In the short term, his Asia-Pacific policies,under pressure from within the Republican Party, could be more aggressive than Obama’s.

Some problems in China-US relations won’t disappear with transfer of power in the US, and may become even more ambiguous instead. China-US competition over regional and global orders has intensified during the second term of the Obama presidency. Where will such competition be headed? How the US sees China will surely be a significant factor. How the US sees China, however, is ultimately how it sees itself. Judging from this campaign, the American society is highly divided, as the America in the elites’ eyes is utterly different from the America in the eyes of the American working class, the American Dream they are pursuing is entirely different, their world outlooks, too, are fundamentally divergent. It remains an open question whether the Trump-led US will be more self-confident, or more suspicious; continue embracing (though no longer enthusiastically) globalization, or nervously shrink back.

This scandal-laden campaign has dramatically compromised American “soft power”. It will be very funny if the Trump administration want to press China with so-called democracy, values and human rights. However, it would be overly naive to assume that as a businessman, Trump will be more interested in cutting deals, and that foreign policies of the Trump administration will forsake persistent American values and criteria.

To sum it up, the US won’t suffer a disastrous decline under President Trump, the idea that the US will thus be worse off, and China better off is not worth a mention. During the US  administration transition, what is worth close observation is the composition of the Trump administration’s foreign policy team, expectations of main US allies, Russia, India and Iran on the new administration’s foreign policies, as well as the development of the anti-globalization ideological trend in the global context. The mega framework of China-US relations won’t change, but factors affecting the relationship are numerous and complex, the Chinese and US governments must work together, ensuring its steady progress is in both countries’ interests. 

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