New Phase of the United States’ China Policy under the Trump Administration

China International Studies (English) - - Contents - Wu Xinbo

While President Trump’s governing concept and policy preferences would inevitably affect the US agenda and pattern of interaction with China, fundamentally it is the political, economic and social changes within the two countries that have driven the transformation of bilateral relations. The new phase of the United States’ China policy has thus put forward higher requirements for bilateral interactions.

Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th US President in January 2017. As a president outside of the establishment camp, Trump’s governing concept and policy preferences have shown great difference from those of his predecessors. This has inevitably affected the US agenda and pattern of interaction with China. Meanwhile, the political, economic and social changes in both China and the US have also influenced bilateral relations, driving a transition in bilateral relations at a deeper level. The China policy of the United States has entered a new phase, in which the competition between the two countries has become even intensified. This article aims to summarize the features of China-us relations during the first year of Trump’s presidency, identify challenges of bilateral relations, discuss the content of Sino-us competitive relations in this new stage, and analyze the features and trends that are likely to characterize the United States’ China policy in the near future.

Features of China-us Relations in Trump’s First Year

Trump criticized China many times during his election campaign, and people once worried that his election to the presidency would hinder the development of China-us relations. However, during the first year of his office, relations with China have become a highlight of Trump’s diplomacy. Wu Xinbo is Dean of the Institute of International Studies and Director of the Center for American Studies, Fudan University.

Rapid contact and smooth start. After Trump was elected President of the United States in November 2016, Chinese President Xi Jinping made a phone call to congratulate him. In return, Trump sent former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to China. Chinese Ambassador to the US Cui Tiankai and White House Senior Advisor Jared Kushner got in touch. Then State Councilor Yang Jiechi also met with Trump’s senior assistant in New York. This series of close interactions conducted in just about one month allowed the Chinese government and Trump’s team to communicate smoothly. China’s subsequent argument with Trump on the Taiwan issue helped prevent Trump from further deviating from the One China policy. With the phone call between President Xi and the newly inaugurated President Trump on February 10, 2017, China and the United States set out to start bilateral relations under a new administration. When the two leaders met in Mar-alago in April 2017, it was agreed the two sides would establish four dialogue mechanisms and implement the Economic Cooperation 100-Day Plan, focusing on key issues in bilateral relations, which marked the formal launch of a new stage in China-us relations.

Good personal relationship between leaders of the two countries played an important role. The Mar-a-lago meeting established a good working relationship and personal friendship between Xi and Trump. Trump repeatedly expressed his respect for Xi and said he was proud to have a personal relationship with Xi. During the one-year period from February 2017 to January 2018, Trump and Xi had three meetings (including their exchange visits) and ten phone calls. This frequency of interactions between leaders of the two countries exceeded that of any previous period. In view of Trump’s governing style characterized by his self-determination and arbitrariness, Xi has built a good working relationship with the US President and kept close contact with him, which has played a key role in ensuring the stable development of China-us relations.

Interactions have obviously followed a problem-oriented path. Trump’s pro-business governing philosophy has made him pay more attention to the trade imbalance between China and the United States,

while the United States’ concerns over North Korea’s nuclear program has also prompted him to seek for China’s cooperation. The leaders of the two countries focused their discussions on these two issues during the meetings in Mar-a-lago and Beijing. On economic and trade issues, from the smooth progress of the 100-Day Plan to the first round of Comprehensive Economic Dialogue, positive results were reached, and Trump’s visit to China witnessed the signing of economic and trade agreements worth more than US$250 billion, reflecting the steady progress of bilateral economic and trade relations. On the North Korean nuclear issue, China and the US have maintained close communication and coordination. China has comprehensively and more strictly enforced relevant resolutions and sanctions of the United Nations Security Council. Although the peaceful settlement of the North Korean nuclear issue in a political manner in 2017 failed to make progress, China and the US maintained an important consensus that they would unswervingly promote the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and devote themselves to solving problems through dialogue and negotiation.

However, the positioning and framework of China-us relations are still not clear. China hopes to continue promoting the “new type of major-country relationship” between the two countries, emphasizing mutual respect and win-win cooperation at the beginning of its interactions with Trump’s team. Rex Tillerson, on his first visit to China as US Secretary of State, also stated that the US is willing to develop relations with China in the spirit of “non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation.” However, under pressure from the domestic establishment, Trump’s position has retrogressed and he has stopped responding to China’s initiative to build a new type of major-country relationship. Instead, he has proposed to develop “constructive and results-oriented” China-us relations.1 In December 2017, the first National Security Strategy issued by the Trump administration defined China as a “competitor,” claiming that it must carry 1 “US Pursues Constructive, Results-oriented Relationship with China: Senior US Official,” Xinhua, March 13, 2017,

out strategic competition with China and highlighting the competitive nature between China and the US.2 The failure of the two countries to reach consensus on the positioning of bilateral relations highlights the lack of highquality strategic dialogues between the two sides and the lack of a clear and consistent overall framework for the development of bilateral relations.

The number of China-us interactions on multilateral occasions has decreased. Since the beginning of the 21st century, due to the development of globalization, the increasing number of global issues, the growing importance of global governance and the expansion of China’s national strength and international influence, it has become an important feature of China-us relations that the two countries greatly strengthen their interactions in multilateral frameworks and make the bilateral relations more “internationalized.” It not only expands the space for further development of bilateral relations but also elevates the international influence of the relationship.3 However, due to Trump’s governing philosophy of “America First,” the US investment in international and multilateral issues has significantly shrunk, which has correspondingly weakened China-us interactions on multilateral occasions. The reduction in multilateral interaction has, to a certain extent, impaired the momentum of China-us relations and potentially downgraded the global influence of the relationship.

Challenges to the Development of China-us Relations

Currently, the challenges facing China-us relations mainly come from two aspects, namely on the level of interaction between the two countries and the coordination within US government agencies on China policy, and in specific areas of the bilateral relations. 2 The White House, National Security Strategy of the United States of America, December 2017, https://

3 Wu Xinbo, “The Re-internationalization of Sino-american Relations,” World Economics and Politics, No.8, 2009, pp.21-22.

Trump’s personal background (lack of political experience), personality, and style of conduct have brought unique challenges to China-us relations. Trump himself lacks a broad horizon when he considers the relationship. He pays too much attention to narrow interests and attaches too much importance to short-term interests and objectives, ignoring the big picture and long-term interests. These are all different from the way in which China handles bilateral relations, and this has produced a “mismatch” in bilateral interactions. Trump handles China-us relations as if he is doing “transactions,” which has both advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that he can accept the reciprocity of interactions, while the disadvantage is that his measures, such as his pursuit of maximum benefits, bluffing, and linkage of issue areas, have increased the cost of China-us competition and reduced his credibility.4 What is particularly obvious is that Trump’s understanding of economic and trade issues is out of touch with the international economic reality in the era of globalization. He is unrealistically stubborn in solving the problem of goods trade deficit to China, which has made China-us relations more complex. In addition, Trump’s paranoid and self-righteous style of decision-making has also made it more difficult for China to interact with him.

Opinions on China also vary among members of Trump’s policy team, among whom hardliners are on the rise. This has also put pressure to the stable development of China-us relations. Although Trump is governing as non-establishment, the composition of his administration still reflects the two traditional major power bases of the Republicans: commercial interests and security interests. From the perspective of the administration’s China policy, there are hawks in both of these two major groups. In business, Director of the White House National Trade Council Peter Navarro and Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer both advocate the use of tough 4 For example, during Trump’s visit to China in November 2017, China and the US reached trade and investment deals worth $250 billion, with which Trump showed satisfaction. Although it is generally believed that China-us economic and trade relations can then enjoy a period of peace, Trump took new measures against China unexpectedly shortly after returning to the US.

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