US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin chatted over the phone for 90 minutes on 3 May, touching upon many areas of US-Russia relations and US policy towards China. Arguably it further demonstrated many basic principles underpinning Trump’s great power diplomacy and global strategy, and has thus attracted much attention from both the government and public in China.
In her briefing about the conversation, White House Spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said that the two presidents had discussed the possibility of signing a new nuclear arms control agreement between Russia, the US and China, and of extending the New START treaty. Notably, it was not the first time that Trump himself and members of his administration mentioned China’s role in disarmament—something that is happening with increasing frequency. America’s current China policy seems to emphasize pressuring China into a disarmament process defined by the US, alongside intensified competition with China in the military realm.
First, Trump has sustained pressure on China over the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) question. On 20 October 2018, he announced an American withdrawal from the 1987 INF Treaty with Russia. As a matter of fact, Russia-US friction on this issue was bad, but did not necessitate a withdrawal—this move instead seems designed to create a momentum drawing China into the pact, thus cutting down on China’s ability to project deterrence in the Western Pacific.
Since then, American officials have proposed on various occasions that China should join the negotiations for a new INF Treaty. Trump’s 2019 State of the Union address explicitly urged China to join. A few days before the American government’s announcement that it was suspending INF Treaty implementation on 1 February, the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission created by the US Congress published a research report titled China’s Missile Program and Potential US Withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. According to the report, the Trump administration cited China as a major reason behind its decision to suspend its INF obligations. The report described the Trump administration’s belief that “remaining outside the pact has allowed China to rapidly expand its missile arsenal as part of a military strategy designed to counter US and allied military power in Asia.” In his 3 May conversation with Putin, Trump again talked about a nuclear disarmament agreement between the two countries and China in a continued effort to unite Russia in pressuring China.
Second, the US has also attempted to include arms reductions by China in the two countries’ strategic dialogue as another core agenda item. According to the White House Press Office, Trump proposed that reduced military expenditure and arms control should become new agenda items in the strategic dialogue in the next stage while meeting Chinese Vice Premier and trade negotiation leader Liu He on 4 April. A few days later, on 10 April, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at a hearing that the US and Russia would soon hold negotiations to extend an existing nuclear disarmament treaty and that China should join the process. These actions suggest that the INF issue is only part of a strategy of pressuring China militarily.
Furthermore, the US Navy’s Freedom of Navigation operations have increased in the South China Sea since Trump took office. Even though there has not any large-scale naval standoff similar to that in July 2016 over the past two and a half years, such naval operations have increased gradually up to early May 2019.
Additionally, the Trump administration has gone even further than the Obama administration with regard to strengthening diplomatic and military relations with Taiwan. On 7 May, the US Congress adopted the Taiwan Assurance Act and a resolution reaffirming the US commitment to Taiwan and to the Taiwan Relations Act. The Taiwan Assurance Act identifies Taiwan as an important part of the American strategy for a free and open Indo-Pacific and calls for normalizing arms sales to Taiwan, assisting the latter in developing and integrating asymmetric warfighting capacity, undersea warfare and air defense in particular. The Act also urges support for Taiwan’s meaningful participation in the UN, World Health Assembly, ICAO, Interpol and other appropriate international organizations.
Sustained and increasing pressure on China from the Trump administration when it comes to military competition and arms control has become an unavoidable question for China in handling its relations with the US.