Dr Feng Zhang
What is China’s policy toward the United States in the age of Donald J. Trump? How is Beijing dealing with the new and unpredictable American president? The challenge of Sino-America relations at the beginning of the Trump administration is not Chinese revisionism in contesting US supremacy, but US revisionism in disrupting long-standing tenets of the relationship.
Chinese policy since Trump’s electoral victory in November 2016 has been to understand the man, the policy substance of his rhetoric, and his advisers and officials who will be most influential in policy making. Beijing has no intention of unsettling the bilateral relationship. In fact, it has been trying a patient approach of strategic resoluteness to dissuade the Trump administration from policy disruptions and steer the relationship on a stable and cooperative path.
Ever since the end of the Cold War, relational stability has been a persistent goal of China’s United States policy. Under President Xi Jinping, China has elevated this policy to a new conceptual level, by attempting to establish what it referred to as ‘a new model of major country relationship.’
From 2012 to 2013, that proposal generated some positive responses from the Obama administration, until it was undermined by China’s own assertiveness in maritime Asia. With the mercurial, unconventional and somewhat enigmatic Trump, the Chinese leadership has quietly dropped the label of ‘a new model of major country relationship’ in publicly describing its United States policy goals.
But it is still using the three main components of such a relationship – no conflict and no confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation – as the basis for Sino-US relations during the Trump administration.
China clearly has no intention of shaking up the Sino-US relationship with the Trump administration. Stability still trumps everything else. Beijing hopes that, somehow, it can stabilise this vital relationship even as the United States' side grows increasingly alarmed by the challenge to American leadership posed by the rise of Chinese power.
In fact, Chinese elites initially greeted Trump’s surprising electoral victory against the Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton with a degree of relief and optimism. Clinton was not liked in Beijing, in no small part due to her central role in launching the Obama administration’s Asia rebalance strategy that many Chinese elites view as targeting China.
They believe a Trump administration would at least alter, if not completely discard, the rebalance strategy. Chinese officials also fret about the ideological hectoring typical of Democratic foreign policy that inevitably results in some clashes between American and Chinese political and foreign policy principles. In contrast, the China policy of Republican administrations from Nixon to Reagan to Bush (both senior and junior) seems to have convinced Beijing that the Republicans are more capable of pragmatism and flexibility.
Moreover, Trump is a businessman, and a real estate developer at that. Having practised geoeconomics for well over two decades, the Chinese leadership always has some confidence in dealing with businessmen. Thus, for almost two months, many Chinese elites were expecting Sino-United States relations to make a turn for the better.
Trump’s 2 December phone call with Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen, breaking nearly three decades of diplomatic protocol, and his more threatening remark nine days later that America would not necessarily be bound by the ‘one China’ policy, dramatised a new, grim reality of Sino-US relations.
Almost immediately, pessimism descended on Chinese policy discussions, and the uncertainties of Trump’s policy, which had previously been thought capable of producing Republican-style pragmatism, were now viewed in a negative, disruptive and highly challenging light. Writing after the Trump-Tsai phone call, Peking University scholar Wang Dong warned that China should not have "illusions" about Trump but should rather prepare for short-term shocks in the relationship.
Cui Liru, a former president of the influential Chinese Institutes of Contemporary International Relations in Beijing, wrote after Trump’s inauguration that the new American president’s nationalism and transactionalism are posing a severe test to the longstanding principle, upheld by both countries since Nixon’s opening to China in 1972, of maintaining the overall stability of Sino-US relations despite all the differences and disputes. He suggested China should maintain its ‘resoluteness’ (dingli) at a time of great uncertainty.
In fact, this seems to have become the main feature of China’s approach to Trump. President Xi’s remarks, delivered at an important National Security Commission meeting in February 2017, offer the best summary of this approach: “Whatever the changes in international situations, we must maintain strategic resoluteness, strategic confidence, and strategic patience.” This approach is apparent in Chinese policies towards four main issues where Trump’s revisionism is most acute: Taiwan, trade, the South China Sea and North Korea.
Taiwan has always been a foundational issue in Sino-US relations. Yet for two months after the Trump-Tsai phone call, apart from solemn declarations from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs about the fundamental importance and non-negotiable quality of the ‘one China’ principle in Sino-US relations, Beijing made no assertive response.
Then, on 9 February quiet diplomacy, possibly involving a Chinese concession too, extracted a pledge from Trump to honour the ‘one China’ principle during a telephone conversation with Xi.
During his presidential campaign, Trump threatened to impose a 45 per cent tariff on Chinese exports to the United States, complaining that China manipulated the value of its currency. Again, China has taken no drastic action on this front. State media threatened damaging retaliations against American exports such as Boeing airplanes and soybeans should the threat eventuate. Officials in the foreign and commerce ministries are trying to find practical ways to alleviate American concerns while protecting Chinese interests, such as bringing the long negotiation over a bilateral investment treaty to a mutually agreeable conclusion. Meanwhile, Beijing has quickly turned itself into a leading advocate of globalisation and free trade to counter American trade protectionism. China recognises the Trump administration’s internal divisions about trade policy, and is waiting to see how those divisions will affect policy.
The Trump administration’s rhetoric about the South China Sea is equally unsettling to the Chinese. During his Senate confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asserted that, “We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed.” Chinese commentators excoriated these remarks as reckless and dangerous, warning that any US naval blockade of Chinese access to the islands would mean war.
But the government has remained rather calm, partly because policymakers have yet to assess the substance of these remarks and partly because they believe China has gained the strategic initiative in the South China Sea and can therefore afford a wait-and-see attitude. Beijing is also aware the United States has steadily increased its military presence in the region since the end of the Obama period. For its part, the People’s Liberation Army has been quietly building military facilities on the islands. Sino-United States strategic competition in the South China Sea is well under way.
In each of these three areas – Taiwan, trade and the South China Sea – China has been trying to maintain the status quo favourable to itself. Over North Korea, however, it has been compelled by escalating tensions to produce new thinking. And yet Beijing is still urging the United States and North Korea to ‘flash the red light and apply the brakes’ to avoid a head-on clash. Foreign Minister Wang Yi has proposed a new policy of ‘double pause’ – that is, North Korea pauses its nuclear weapons and missile development programs, and the United States and South Korea pause large-scale military exercises – to create conditions for returning to the negotiating table.
This is still a status quo policy. In addition, China is extremely opposed to the deployment of the United States' THAAD missile defence system in South Korea. In retaliation for that deployment, it has reduced economic ties with South Korea and punished the Lotte Group – a South Korean company with a major commercial presence in China – for granting land to the deployment. Both the ‘double pause’ proposal and its economic punishment of South Korea have, however, been rejected by the United States as ineffective or inappropriate. It is in North Korea policy that China confronts the biggest early challenge in dealing with the Trump administration.
It is still early days to assess Chinese policy towards the Trump administration. Like many other countries, China has been puzzled by the unpredictability and uncertainty of American foreign policy under Trump. The remarks of Trump and his officials about Taiwan, trade, North Korea and the South China Sea have rattled many Chinese elites, giving the impression that this administration may be uniquely hawkish towards China.
But the government as a whole has approached the Trump administration with pragmatism. Some elites actually welcome part of Trump’s revisionism, especially his rethinking and potential adjustment of America’s international goals, seeing this as a necessary correction of America’s overly competitive grand strategy.
It is likely that President Xi’s principle of strategic resoluteness, confidence and patience will continue to guide China’s US policy, producing a good degree of stability and predictability. It is also possible that, guided by pragmatists such as Secretary of State Tillerson, strategists such as Secretary of Defense James Mattis and National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster, and influential moderates such as his son-in-law Jared Kushner, Trump’s policy will eventually stabilise and achieve some modus vivendi with China.
Despite all the differences over North Korea, Tillerson’s first trip to China in late March emphasised cooperation rather than confrontation. Notably, Tillerson used the Chinese language to describe the United States-China relationship as having been "guided by an understanding of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation" – precisely the three components of Xi’s new model of major country relationship for Sino-US relations. Perhaps this was just intended to give China ‘face’ in the first high-level contact between the Xi leadership and the Trump administration.
Nevertheless, it is an encouraging sign, and certainly an important step towards the first Trump-Xi summit at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, scheduled for April 2017.
But it is also possible that Trump, influenced by his ideological chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon and nationalistic economic advisor Peter Navarro, will follow through on his inflammatory threats, eliciting equally assertive countermeasures from China and plunging the relationship into major instability.
Any provocative moves by either side in any of four areas where Trump has threatened revisionism – Taiwan, trade, South China Sea and North Korea – will be enough to trigger unsettling disputes and even crises with regional and global ramifications. Given that China is acting like a status quo power in the beginning of the Trump administration, how the Trump administration will act, and how revisionist it will eventually become, will largely determine the evolution of this relationship in the months to come.