America's adversary? China in American policy debates and how it affects the Trumpian approach to Asia

Picture of Professor Bates Gill

Professor Bates Gill

Professor Bates Gill

Regardless of who was elected the US president in 2016, Sino-American relations were already headed into difficulties. The overall relationship had begun to sour in the latter years of the Obama administration. Chinese activities in the South China Sea, cyberattacks on American firms and government agencies, and continuing crackdown on dissent are just a few items on a growing list of US concerns about the direction of China’s rise.

Even United States businesses – long the staunchest advocates for constructive and deepening relations with China – have become increasingly jaundiced about their struggles to succeed in the China market. Much of the American public, and especially those who have seen their manufacturing jobs lost in the past decade or two, readily see competition with China as the source of United States economic malaise.

Hence, it was an easy choice for candidate Donald Trump to take up China bashing as a core element of his stump speeches and debate appearances. In today’s America, there is almost no political downside to talking tough on China.

In some ways, Trump was not all that different from his predecessors in American presidential election politics. China is a frequent and easy target. Candidate Reagan attacked the incumbent Jimmy Carter for cutting off Taiwan to establish diplomatic relations with China. In 1992, candidate Bill Clinton criticised his opponent for “coddling dictators from Baghdad to Beijing” and railed against the “butchers of Beijing”. In the run-up to his presidency, George W. Bush argued that China was not a partner but rather a “strategic competitor”.

But candidate and president-elect Trump took things to a new level. He repeatedly said China is America’s “enemy” and is “raping our country” through unfair economic practices. He promised that on his first day as president he would put in motion a range of punitive measures by declaring China a currency manipulator. He also pledged to slap a 45 percent tariff on all Chinese imports.

As president-elect, he broke with decades of diplomatic protocol by taking a congratulatory telephone call from Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen and later questioning the value of the “one-China policy”, a long-standing diplomatic understanding at the heart of stable US-China relations.

Just prior to taking office, he tweeted: “China has been taking out massive amounts of money & wealth from the United States in totally one-sided trade, but won’t help with North Korea. Nice!” This all adds up to make him arguably the most openly anti-China candidate and president-elect since the Nixon opening to China in the early 1970s.

All the more strange then to watch his approach to China in his first 100 days as president. Across the board we have seen flip-flops, reversals and accommodation to Chinese positions. He has not declared China a currency manipulator, the 45 percent tariff on Chinese imports never materialised, and in his first telephone call with China’s leader Xi Jinping, Trump committed to honouring the one-China policy.

No words or deeds have come up to challenge Chinese claims in the South China Sea or call out Beijing’s poor human rights record. Instead, his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, while on his first official visit to Beijing, dutifully repeated the stock Chinese phraseology to envision United States-China ties, saying he sought relations “based on the principle of no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation”.

And perhaps most remarkably, President Trump hosted his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, for a 24-hour visit to his Mar-a-Lago club in early April. The only other world leader to enjoy such treatment was the Shinzo Abe, who, as Japanese prime minister, leads one of America’s closest allies.  The summit was long on ceremony and short on substance, but helped put the US-China relationship on a more positive footing—for now at least.

What is going on here? Where will it all lead for US-China relations? For some, the Trump approach to China appears to be all give and no take, even bordering on accommodation. Others are waiting for the other shoe to drop in the form of Chinese concessions cleverly negotiated and extracted by the dealmaker-in-chief. But as with so many aspects of the Trump presidency, it is very difficult to know whether his approach thus far towards China is carefully calculated or simply the result of little to no thinking at all.

It is difficult to avoid thinking the latter is indeed the case. To begin, we know that the United States president has very little experienced staffing to support a coherent China strategy. The most experience he could turn to is at the State Department. But the State Department has been consistently marginalised from policy deliberations, is facing further marginalisation and demoralisation as its budget is slashed and, in any event, has few senior level China and Asia hands still in the building.

But even if there is a 'there, there', and the president aims to capitalise on his friendly treatment of China and its leader, it is not clear this approach is going to work for US-China relations or for a broader Asia strategy. For example, it appears the White House has nearly completed its North Korea strategy review and it looks like it will be more of the same: tighter sanctions and expecting China to 'do more'.

But we have been here before and we know the Chinese are not likely to threaten measures that may risk North Korea’s survival. And, if it is true as reported during Tillerson’s visit to China in March, that the White House is considering some tough financial penalties for Chinese companies and banks which continue to do business with North Korea, that will not win any friends in Beijing.

If anything, China will want Washington to 'do more' – reduce military activities on the Korean peninsula, withdraw the newly deployed THAAD anti-missile system, and open up negotiations with Pyongyang, none of which President Trump is likely to do.

The president will also need to be mindful of US allies and friends in the region – such as Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. They will be anxious that any US-China dealing might be done over their heads and to their disadvantage. Their strong supporters in Washington, especially on Capitol Hill, will be very vocal in discouraging the president from reaching any understandings that would undercut loyal allies.

Those considerations will limit what the president can do in giving Beijing what it wants most – to be treated as an equal, have its “core interests” respected and moderate the United States and allied presence around China’s periphery.

But even if the two sides can demonstrate a preference for cooperation and stability, there is still a lot of volatility and unpredictability baked into the relationship. The two leaders are both committed to making their countries “great again” and would see the other as a possible challenge to that goal.

Xi Jinping is looking to consolidate his power base and ensure he is given a strong mandate to rule for another five years, at the 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress in late 2017. It seems unlikely that Xi Jinping would take any rash steps between now and then. But President Trump will be dealing with a more confident and risk-taking leadership in Beijing come 2018.

As for the US side, it still lacks a coherent strategy document or major policy statement about Asia policy. Some of the troubling statements that have emerged thus far do not inspire much confidence. The president’s preoccupation with self-image means he could overreact to events in the region that make him look bad.

On top of that, major political distractions, many of the administration’s own making, have sapped the White House of the time and energy needed to focus on future relations with China, North Korea, US allies, and America’s role in the dynamic Asia-Pacific region.

If we add all that up, we cannot discount the possibility of disarray and devolution into more serious confrontation if there is a crisis. The situation on the Korean peninsula is especially ripe for miscalculation and rapidly escalatory responses between North Korea and the United States and their respective supporters.

In the South China Sea, Beijing has nearly completed the installation of radars, runways, hardened bunkers, anti-aircraft missiles and other facilities to support a significant military presence. When the Trump administration chooses to challenge Chinese claims in the waterway through freedom of navigation operations – which the administration will surely do – the possibility for a heated confrontation or worse remains high.

In many respects, we are left with assuming President Trump will follow his instincts if relations with China go badly. Those instincts will be to take a tougher and tougher stance to show who is boss. As he learnt during the campaign, Trump would find a substantial amount of political support in the United States to take a tougher stand against China. Given all his other problems at home, appealing to American nationalism might look like an attractive next move. 

Updated:  24 April, 2017/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team