Monday, January 16, 2017
A complex relationship with China could temper Trump’s tough talk on jobs, trade
THE HANDOFF | The foreign policy challenges President-elect Donald Trump will inherit and how he might approach them.
By Anne Gearan January 14 at 3:43 PM
Donald Trump talked tough on China during his presidential run, blaming the country for the loss of American jobs, lobbing accusations of unfair currency manipulation or hostile trade practices, and suggesting that the United States levy enormous tariffs on Chinese goods.
“Look at what China is doing to our country,” Trump said in September, during a presidential debate with Democrat Hillary Clinton.
“They’re using our country as a piggy bank to rebuild China,” he added. “We have to stop our jobs from being stolen from us.”
Several analysts predicted that Trump’s tough talk on tariffs and jobs will recede as he contends with the complexity of intertwined economies and the reality of China’s military expansion.
Trump held a precedent-breaking phone call with Taiwan’s president last month, which threatened to reopen a largely dormant ideological fight over self-determination and democracy in the separately governed island China considers a province. He also berated China for failing to curb hostile actions by its ally North Korea.
Some in China’s leadership who had been confident that they understood Trump’s business-minded approach questioned whether they were now dealing with an old-school Republican ideologue.
That creates new and uncertain ground for perennially troubled U.S.-China relations as Trump faces a rising power increasingly willing to challenge U.S. military and economic dominance.
Trump also inherits long-standing challenges from an Obama administration that has little to show for its effort to frame a new relationship with China and its neighbors. After President Obama’s optimistic “pivot to Asia” foundered, Trump is getting advice to redefine U.S. policy in the Pacific region on get-tough military as well as economic grounds.
That’s harder than it seems, experts on China said, and it is not yet clear where Trump wants to go.
“I’m not optimistic that things are going to go smoothly, not because of Donald Trump or [Chinese President] Xi Jinping, but because of a set of issues that are fairly intractable,” said Dean Cheng, a China expert at the Heritage Foundation. “There are deeply rooted, firmly held views about how the world should work,” on both sides.
“China thinks it should push its sovereignty,” into areas of the Pacific the United States considers off limits. “That’s a fairly zero-sum argument,” Cheng said. No matter which way the situation plays out, “somebody’s going to be unhappy.”
Indeed, Chinese state media denounced secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson’s blunt statement last week that China should be barred from using islands it made in the contested South China Sea.
The question of U.S. treatment of Taiwan is the same kind of zero-sum equation in the Chinese view, several U.S. analysts said. China will be watching for any U.S. action or statement that appears to elevate Taiwan’s claim to sovereignty.
At the same time, Trump’s choice to become U.S. ambassador to China, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, has long ties to the country and is seen as an olive branch to the Xi government.
At his Senate confirmation hearing, Tillerson also balanced assertions that China has made empty promises on North Korea and is behaving illegally in the South China Sea by saying there are no plans to do away with the “One China” policy concerning Taiwan.
“Tillerson’s testimony hits the nail right on the head,” said Michael Pillsbury, a former Reagan administration Pentagon official who advised the Trump campaign.
“He was successfully able to convey what are the two poles of our China strategy: on the one hand cooperation and on the other hand competition,” said Pillsbury, whose recent book “The Hundred-Year Marathon” argues that China has a long game to supplant the United States as the global superpower.
Despite his tough trade talk, Trump was seen by many Chinese officials as the far preferable candidate, given Clinton’s long history as a critic of human rights, trade and military practices in China. Trump, some Chinese analysts said before the election, appeared likely to discount long-standing U.S. alliances with Japan and South Korea and withdraw from the Pacific region.
In a mostly upbeat interview this month, China’s ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, acknowledged that Trump is a new kind of U.S. leader.
“Today’s world is changing very fast in many ways, so you do have new styles, new personalities and maybe new developments. Some of them could be unprecedented,” Cui said on CGTN, a state-owned English language channel.
“But I think for our relationship, for the relations between China and the United States, it is determined by the larger common interests,” Cui said. “In today’s world, the major countries have to work together to deal with so many challenges — economic challenges, financial challenges and also security challenges.”
A trade war, he added, would hurt both countries.
China’s own political turmoil as it prepares for what could be a turnover of power following a Communist Party Congress later this year is also likely to affect U.S. relations. Coupled with the slowdown in China’s economy, the political uncertainty is likely to mean the country’s leaders are preoccupied with internal affairs.
It is not clear Trump will revisit other points of past friction with China, including long-standing human rights concerns in China and allegations of government abuses, including treatment of minorities, forced migration and land seizures.
“These are extraordinarily thorny, complex issues that have defied at least 40, 45 years of U.S.-China relations,” Cheng said. “There’s no reason to think that stops in 2017. What we can hope is that things don’t go completely out of control.”