Signs of Stability: Trump’s Treatment of China in 2017

Touraj Riazi Analysis 1 Comment

Donald Trump’s inauguration this January augured an era of renewed uncertainty in Sino-U.S. relations after a campaign where China was the subject of multiple invectives. Chinese apprehension of Trump was certainly not unfounded as he entered office after having accused, on the campaign trail, the next major rising power of the 21st century of “raping” the U.S. While the world was enthralled by awaiting the prospect of Trump carrying principles of his ‘America first’ policy into the White House, Xi Jinping assumed center stage at the World Economic Forum in Davos (also in January) where he delivered what western media perceived as a “robust defence of globalization.” Since then both leaders have fallen short of acting on their declarations and continue to abide by the fundamental agreements that have marked Sino-U.S. relations since their opening under President Nixon.

China’s remarkable transformation since integrating itself into global markets has significantly attenuated what previously seemed to be an insurmountable asymmetry in power between the U.S. and China. Trump’s recently concluded trip to China reflected this reality. Western media outlets have taken Xi’s personal treatment of Trump in what was deemed a ‘state visit plus’ as a positive development in Sino-U.S. relations. Neglect of the unmistakeable symbolism in having Xi receive Trump in the Forbidden City meant not many noticed this was the same location where multiple dynasties of Chinese emperors received Chinese tributaries who came to China in a position of need and inferiority. Xi’s confidence in the majesty of China’s performance when receiving Trump is also based on Chinese military capabilities that are unmatched in the Asia-Pacific region. It is not insignificant that the Philippines–one of the major claimants in the South China Sea and a U.S. ally—declined Trump’s off-the-cuff offer to mediate any disputes last week by stating, “the South China Sea is better left untouched. Nobody can afford to go to war.” Revealingly, in Xi’s much noted speech on the occasion of the opening of the 19th Communist Congress, the much contested island-building was touted as a major achievement, which Trump, unlike his predecessor, made no comment of during his trip. Trump’s initial response to China’s ascent was reported to have been a semantic shift from using the term Indo Pacific instead of Asia Pacific when preparing for the Asia trip to emphasize the non-Chinese aspect of the Pacific. Ironically, this shift implicitly acknowledges that China is becoming, if it has not already become, the predominant regional power in Asia and that an area dominated by Asia (such as the Pacific) has merely become a euphemism for Chinese influence in a given region.

Trump’s treatment of China since his inauguration offers only more evidence of a growing realization that antagonizing China can yield very limited if any results with problems confronting the two nations. A series of diplomatically clumsy manoeuvers by Trump have eventually stabilized into a treatment of China that fell into accordance with traditional U.S.-China interactions. From questioning the ‘One China’ policy, to threats involving labelling China as a currency manipulator (distant memories to many), Trump’s behaviour toward China after his first summit with Xi at Mar-a-Lago three months ago was more refrained and did not call into question any core tenets of the Sino-U.S. relationship. Suggestions of another phone call between Trump and Taiwan’s president, which questioned the One China policy when it first occurred last December, were rejected, a telling sign of a normalized relationship between China and the U.S. Despite hailing “tremendous” progress after the summit in April, Trump did not manage to extract any significant Chinese concessions on trade or North Korea, two areas of importance highlighted by Trump during the campaign trail and prior to the summit itself. North Korea did not feel compelled to restrain its ability to demonstrate Trump’s ineffectiveness in pressuring China on North Korea’s nuclear program either by executing a ballistic missile test while Xi was at Mar-a-Lago. Neither did China take any concrete steps to move away from economic practices that have irked Western counterparts despite continued pronouncements by Xi that China is ‘opening’ its doors to Western companies.

Trump’s recent visit to China was similarly unproductive. A gaudy glamour shrouding Trump’s visit could again not conceal the absence of any concessions by China on the same issues Trump raised before Mar-a-Lago in April. Minor business deals (some of which are even non-binding) were the limit of China’s willingness to provide Trump with a ‘tweetable’ accomplishment. No serious headways on any strategic issues were made if for no other reason than America’s inability to force China to produce progress (itself a lesson China would not mind having Trump learn). Trump’s visit occurred not too long after Xi Jinping’s speech opened the 19th Communist Party Congress with a speech that referred to China as a great power no less than 26 times (a change from how previous Chinese leaders referred to their nation in the past 40 years). Although it did not behoove the American President to acknowledge China’s growing strength, doing so after a campaign when China was excoriated was seen to be Trump’s recognition that the U.S. has limited leverage over Chinese actions. Standing next to Xi in front of reporters, Trump stated that he could not blame China for a “one-sided and unfair trade surplus” because “after all who can blame a country for taking advantage of another country for the benefit of its citizens. I give them great credit.”

Such rhetoric represents a shift from Trump’s previous treatment of China and indicates Trump is adopting his own recent suggestion that China and the U.S. can together “solve almost all” of the world’s problems if they cooperate instead of confront one another. It is extremely unlikely to expect major strategic issues such as territorial disputes in the South China Sea to be resolved by a single grandiloquent ‘deal’ or conference and it is even less likely for personal affability between Xi and Trump to compensate for conflicting conceptions of each leader’s national interest. However, despite the absence of any major breakthroughs in the Sino-U.S. relationship, it is a major source of reassurance in a year of uncertainty that a degree of rhetorical stability initially missing under Trump in the most important bi-lateral relationship in the 21st century has once again returned.


Leave a Reply