Sino-US relations in the Trump era
The election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States naturally has many observers nervous about the policy consequences. Here in the US, the reactions of many of Trump’s political opponents were apoplectic at first; overseas, many are reacting to these domestic responses, and drawing dire conclusions.
The lack of deep policy debate during this presidential campaign has left many to try to weave policy interpretations together from terse sound bytes and random responses to the twists and turns of campaign politics. Therefore, it is wise to look to fundamentals rather than emotional outbursts.
Beyond questions of campaign tactics and the tone of this election, it can be said fairly that the election of Trump turned on at least several important public perceptions: Stagnation of American incomes and opportunity, perceived as coming from the unfair effects of globalization and incorrect domestic policy preferences; overextension ofUS military power on peripheral threats and weakness at the core; and inattention to theUS’ domestic economy and infrastructure.
Trump appealed to his voters by offering to negotiate better terms for America’s economic and security arrangements with the rest of the world. He did not say he would isolate the US, but that as a successful businessman, he knows how to drive a better bargain.
He promised to address the gaps and shortfalls inUS defenses that have developed during years of budget “sequestration”. He will ask America’s security partners and allies to remain together but to do more in their own defense and rely less onUS security largesse. And he reflected the observable twin impulses of the American people to be less involved in non-vital domestic or regional conflicts, but also to be vigilant and effective against threats such as from the Islamic State group.
Trump has signaled his intention to stimulate the anemic US economy through, among other things, construction to repair crumbling infrastructure and new infrastructure for a 21st century economy. As a New Yorker, he knows how the city was raised to greatness in large measure through massive infrastructure improvements led by the visionary RobertMoses. It is time for a new vision. He pledges to trim back over-regulation imposed in recent years on the economy and society to find new sources of growth.
How should China react to all this? First, the dramatic redirection in US administrations is an opportunity for Beijing to reframe constructively the recent narrative in US-China relations. Since the Barack Obama administration announced its “rebalance” or “pivot” to Asia policy, the mix of competition and cooperation has steadily seen the competitive aspects, including military deployments, assume a larger role than the cooperative, such as the agreement on climate change.
Chinese observers say the “rebalance” is an attempt to contain China’s rise. The recent US rhetorical focus on strengthening alliances in the western Pacific reinforced this perception.
China has responded to this in its own region with offers to help economically. This was symbolized dramatically with contracts signed for loans and infrastructure during the recent visit of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to Beijing. It is part of the Belt and Road Initiative (the Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road) of Chinese President Xi Jinping. I call this response by Beijing the Chinese counterbalance to the American rebalance.
Beijing has accompanied this with growth of its military capabilities and activities, including the construction of artificial features in the South China Sea. But since the arbitral tribunal’s award in July, Beijing has been expressing its desire “to turn the page”, and the decibel levels of official pronouncements on both sides have declined.
Trump’s election is an opportunity for theUS and China to construct an explicitly cooperative agenda. The goal should be to establish a positive context within which to manage the inevitable strategic competition in the western Pacific.
A newapproach should start with a calm effort to address specific sources of concern. On the economic side, Beijing should explain and reaffirm its own reform agenda, that as China moves up the economic ladder and consumes more, its markets will open toUS exports, services and investment; it will take measures to ensure that dumping of steel and other products is not condoned; and offer credits and cooperation for theUS’ infrastructure revitalization.
Now that the political gridlock of recent years is about to end, China should project itself as the US’ economic partner, to complement and not to compete with the American economy. And since the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement is in a coma, China should remind Trump of the potential to unlock opportunity with the Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific, originally an American idea, now championed by Beijing.
On the security side, China should invite Trump to a Sunnylands-like meeting in the first six months of his term. Trump and Xi are not scheduled to attend international conferences until late in the year, too late if we are to rewrite proactively the Sino-US narrative. So Beijing should use the opportunity to manage the strategic competition and address specific challenges, such as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s continuing serious provocations during next year’s transition period in the US and possibly the Republic of Korea.
These initiatives would be a welcome example of a newtype of major country relationship. The author is vice-president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.