2017 May
China-US Relations in the Trump Era

Ming K Chan, Visiting Scholar of the Center for East Asian Studies, Stanford University


At the Xi-Trump summit held at Mar-a-Largo earlier on, China and the US agreed to establish new top-level dialogue mechanisms and cooperation frameworks in four areas, namely diplomatic and security, comprehensive economic, law enforcement and cyber security, as well as social and people-to-people dialogues. These were the positive and concrete outcomes brought about by the meeting of the state leaders, which support and encourage the healthy development of China-US relations on a new starting point.


Two and a half months after Donald Trump sworn in as the new US president and leader of the Whitehouse, the most significant test for his international relations and foreign policies came up – Chinese President Xi Jinping was invited to Trump’s manor, Mar-a-Lago, in coastal Florida in the southeastern part of America, where a more personal, non-state visit presidential summit was carried out.


Two main foci: North Korea and bilateral trade

Two weeks before the summit, official US news reported that this meeting would focus on two main topics. The first is the global strategic balance of the region and concerns over multi-country national security, i.e. the denuclearization of North Korea. The second core topic was adjustments to the fundamental bilateral economic relation. This relates to the imbalanced China-US trade. One could say the two main topics are both based on stringent and significant strategic consideration, which brings out what power nations could not avoid from discussing.


The recent headline-like messages given by the highest levels of the Whitehouse on these two topics, overall, were more rooted in reality and fit in with the major interests of the US These messages could not be low-profile as the US must maintain its dominant role in the Asia-Pacific and protect its main allies. Certainly, from the perspective of their contents and styles, these messages were very different from the so-called “campaign language” used by Trump during his primary election amongst the Republicans, and as a presidential election candidate nominated by the Republicans.


THAAD destroys relationships amongst China, the US and South Korea

The grand international strategy about the denuclearization of North Korea, in fact, is beyond the scope of the bilateral talks between China and the US. It has always been a major item in Chinese defense and diplomacy (especially when China hosted and dominated the “six-sided talks” over the past decade). Facing the diverse and complicated landscape in the Kim-family empire of North Korea, the US is seriously self-contradictory on its most basic principles and standpoints. On one hand, the US hopes China could take an active role in suppressing Pyongyang, but on the other, it is the most important ally and military protector of South Korea. Using the excuse of counterbalancing the nuclear threat of North Korea, the US has already put much effort on setting up the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea. The actual effective scope of detection of this defense system, in fact, covers a large part of eastern and northern China. Therefore, THAAD is not only used to guard against North Korea, but also to gather military intelligence in China. From the perspective of Beijing, this is absolutely a threat to China’s national security.


Thus, there has been a rapid retrogression in relationship between China and South Korea over the past six months. Even Chinese people  have started to strongly oppose and boycott the commerce, trade and tourism of South Korea. Beijing thinks that the US is using the threat of North Korea as an excuse, and the military setup in South Korea is directly threatening China’s national interest. This is not at all a friendly move. Then, why is China helping the US in handling the nuclearization of North Korea?


From the perspective of geopolitics, Obama’s administration had vigorously pushed ahead the “return to Asia” strategy and encouraged Japan to strengthen its military build-up in the past few years. With the US backing, Japan has even been actively lending its warships to Southeast Asian countries to expand the scope of its military influence. Similarly, why would China assist the US and Japan in resolving the nuclearization problem of North Korea?

Conflicts in the Northeast Asia Alliance

In fact, the development of nuclear weapons in North Korea is, naturally, targeted at Japan after the US (Some older South Koreans are still unable to forget or forgive the Japanese for their cruel ruling when they occupied the Korean Peninsula. Certain Korean academics even believe that both South and North Korea share this historic lesson learnt – Japan is their common target for taking revenge for the past insult). With encouragement from the US, Japanese militarism has revived and causing unrest in South Korea. Certain South Koreans have even said that if North Korea should target its nuclear weapons at Japan, South Korea should not oppose against it. This shows that internal conflicts exist within the northeastern Asian alliance of the US. Because of the connivance of the US, Japan’s militarism and invasion left behind from World War II are yet to be fully eliminated or paid back. The grudges towards Japan would become the fuse for internal division in the US-East Asia alliance.


Over the past 10 odd years, China and South Korea have maintained a friendly relationship and made certain achievements in economic and trade cooperation. If China could reach certain understanding with South Korea regarding the THAAD system, it would help expand China’s space for strategic balance on Korea Peninsula. It would also have leverage to say no to Trump’s American putschism.


Trump’s administrative blunders leave him without an upper-hand

100 days after Trump assumed his new political power, he has been stumbling in politics at home and abroad. His main policies have all been met with strong resistance and have made no progress. Externally, for example, Trump’s “Muslim ban” that bars visitors from Muslim-majority countries was suspended by the US Federal Court. After it has been revised by the Whitehouse, the second version was once again temporarily halted by the Federal Court. Domestically, a major item on Trump’s election platform was to dismantle the American Health Care Act, the so-called “Obamacare”. Since it failed to pass at the House of Representatives in which Republicans are the majority, Trump could only unwillingly withdraw the bill. Double failures in domestic and external administration aside, senior officials of the Whitehouse have also been shadowed by the “alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US election” over the past few weeks. A number of opinion polls in the US indicate that Trump’s presidential approval rating has dipped to an all-time new low. The public is generally not optimistic about the administration effectiveness of the Trump government as its governance team is yet to be completely established. Some even reckon that, since Trump has become a minority president as soon as he sworn in, he would be highly unlikely to gain ground-breaking achievements in the international arena. By comparing the strengths of China and the US, the Americans do not hold an upper-hand at the manor summit, implying China has no need to make major concessions.


US raid in Syria changed the situation

Circumstances have changed around the time of the state leader dinner on 6 April, when Trump decided to take military actions and attacked the Syrian regime which harmed civilians with chemical weapons. Public support for Trump surged after his move. The Syrian raid has killed three birds with one stone. First, it punished Syria for attacking innocent civilians with chemical weapons; secondly, it served as a warning to North Korea; thirdly, it sent a message to Beijing that Trump has the capacity to take independent external military actions for the interest of the US.


So far, the military action in Syria has not achieved what Trump wishfully wanted – to strengthen the amicable cooperation with Russia under the leadership of Putin so as to draw Moscow closer to the US and to weaken or even destroy the partnership between China and Russia in terms of the supply of strategic weapons and in international affairs. If the US and Russia become closer and China and Russia become more distant, then the US could find a way to isolate China, from which further pressure can be exerted to gain an upper hand and China’s giving-in.


No rush for China to make concessions

At present, the senior personnel of the Whitehouse and relevant foreign affairs departments are yet to be filled; experts on Asian studies are yet to assume their positions. Going forward, there may be more shocking scoop about the “Russian spy scandal” to be made known. By then, Trump will become the first ever president in the US history to head a “lame duck” administration as soon as he sworn in. By contrast, China has time on its hand. It does not have to make rash compromises with the vacillating, double-faced Trump. Trump is a seasoned businessman, but inexperienced in politics. He has a preference towards closing deals like a businessman. China must decline any dealing that could hurt its interest and principles. Therefore, it would be extremely difficult for Trump to fully negate all that had been done by his predecessor Obama – he might even become confused and disorganized as soon as he makes the first move.


Concrete outcomes from Xi-Trump talks

China should never be hasty in over-addressing the requests of Trump; it should not unwillingly back down with huge trade concessions, or join hands with the US to suppress North Korea’s actions. In the foreseeable future, the Trump administration tends to go downhill. In the much longer run, however, Trump may go through initial failure before making compromises to rebuild the bilateral discussion to seek amicable cooperation and common interests. The Xi-Trump summit resulted in the two countries reaching consensuses and agreeing to establish new top-level dialogue mechanisms and cooperation framework in four areas, namely diplomatic and security, comprehensive economic, law enforcement and cyber security, as well as social and people-to-people dialogues. The “100-Day Plan” for China and US trade to stimulate export of the US and reduce the trade deficit of America in China-US trade would also be implemented to serve as a graceful stepping stone for Trump. These were the positive and concrete outcomes brought about by the meeting of the state leaders, which support and encourage the healthy development of China-US relations on a new starting point.