Sino-US Relationship from Obama to Trump
Photo Credit: EPA
By Xiaolin Duan

Sino-US Relationship from Obama to Trump

Dec. 19, 2017  |     |  0 comments

United States President Donald Trump recently finished his visit to China in November 2017, during which Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping reaffirmed their commitment to develop a constructive and cooperative bilateral relationship. Although many analysts had anticipated a tough time between them, particularly due to their bilateral trade deficit problems and North Korean’s brinkmanship diplomacy, Trump and Xi seemed to try to limit their differences and find mutually acceptable ways to promote their cooperation.


Others may doubt whether such a pacifying moment may last long. For instance, the advocates of power transition theory argue that the rising power is more likely to challenge the dominant position of the established power and redefine the world system rules to its favor. In the contemporary world, they forecast a systemic dilemma that China and the United States will be unlikely to coexist peacefully in the foreseeable future.


This then raises the question at the core of the debate: is the China-US relationship in the darkness before dawn, or is a heavy storm yet to arrive which will destroy the two great powers’ “false friendship”? This is a fundamental question in China’s grand strategy making, and is also a fundamental question for the China-US relationship.


The Darkness before Dawn?


The positive scenario stems from several factors on both sides, and predicts that the two countries may face some temporary systemic constraints and problems which can be resolved with political wisdom and mutual accommodation.


One important factor is that China’s rise directly benefits from its deep involvement in the global system shaped by America’s liberal vision. China as a beneficiary of the system is very unlikely to challenge it fundamentally, although minor revisions may be desired.


It seems a reasonable hunch that no hegemony or world leadership lasts forever. If that’s the case, and if the US purpose is to ensure the survival and development of the liberal order, even in a time of the relative decline of the US, as some liberals have argued, then the two countries are not mortal enemies destined to fight.


Also, it may take time for the United States — or in general, the Western world — to accept a powerful and proactive China with increasing global influence. Out of realistic concerns, and also due to frequent social, economic, and strategic exchanges, the United States may make appropriate arrangements to accommodate China’s rise and accept China’s new status in the world system.


Certainly, some progressive changes may also occur on the Chinese side. As the current system further constrains its economic and social development — a major source of Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy of rule — Beijing need to further liberalize the economy, constrain the power of the public sector, and develop a law-based governing mechanism. In addition, its expanding overseas commercial presence will also help Beijing edge away from unpredictable dictators, because China’s investments in those countries face immense political risks, and Beijing will instead turn to countries that are socially stable and which are governed by transparent laws and regulations. Beijing also has strong incentives to advance the liberal world order to some extent. This may mitigate America’s animosity towards China’s political system, and narrow down their differences on what a future world should be.


A Storm on the Way?


The negative scenario has been widely discussed and has created immense anxieties among the experts and the public over a possible tit-for-tat clash between the two great powers.


The first and foremost concern is China’s maritime disputes with its neighbors, including Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam, and border disputes with India, which are either US security treaty allies or strategic partners. Despite a lack of official relations with Taiwan, the United States maintains a special security commitment to defend Taiwan, particularly in case of mainland China’s provocations. China considers territorial integrity and unification with Taiwan as prominent aspects of its national rejuvenation, making itself unlikely to compromise significantly in these disputes.

The systemic pressure China faces has eased since Donald Trump took office and officially ended the US rebalancing strategy.

In case of contingencies, America’s regional allies may wag the dog, and as the US would also want to act firmly to honor its commitments to defend its allies, these together increase the systemic dangers of a China-US confrontation.


Other factors also make the two powers likely to slip into a rivalry. Western stereotypes and misunderstandings about China’s political system — particularly the ongoing reforms led by President Xi — international trade, Renminbi exchange rate problems, cybersecurity, and other issues may keep worsening and constraining the development of the China-US bilateral relationship.


Will China and the United States Escape the Thucydides Trap?


Harvard Professor Graham Allison famously wrote: “But as China challenges America’s predominance, misunderstandings about each other’s actions and intentions could lead them into a deadly trap first identified by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides. As he explained, ‘It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.’” Today, strategic analysts worry about the possibility of a tit-for-tat clash between China and the US.


Since the announcement of the US rebalance to Asia in late 2011, the Obama administration gradually slipped into a semi-containment strategy to deal with a rising and assertive China. In my opinion, the regional tensions — either in the South China Sea or the East China Sea — were a mixed result of China’s rising power and expanding foreign policies, other regional players’ opportunistic and fear-driven behaviors, and America’s strategic anxieties. I certainly have no intention to judge which side was more responsible for instability in the last several years, but the systemic pressure China faces has eased since Donald Trump took office and officially ended the US rebalancing strategy.


China and Japan maintain effective crisis management in the East China Sea to avoid escalation, and their leaders recently announced to a “fresh start” for their bilateral relationship. And the negotiation of a Code of Conduct among competing claimants to the South China Sea has made substantive progress. Although the North Korean crisis has kept deteriorating due to Kim Jong-un’s provocative nuclear and missile tests, China and the United States share a common interest in de-nuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. Southeast Asian countries have adjusted their foreign strategies to accommodate China.


The reasons for the temporary pacifying trends in East Asia and beyond largely stem from Donald Trump’s strategic adjustment. Trump tends to focus more on domestic and economic affairs rather than adopting a more proactive foreign strategy, and his Asia-Pacific strategy is still unclear. In addition, China’s new charm offensive and economic engagement have de-escalated the South China Sea disputes and relieved the anxiety of its neighbors.


The realists tend to rely on relative power changes to predict the future of China-US competition. For instance, if the recently-passed tax cuts help US economic recovery and growth, while China’s structural economic reforms do not make much progress, ideas about containing China will have the right environment to flourish in Washington, and the tensions will surely revive.


However, recent trends indicate that the two countries are not destined for war, and that mutual accommodation is possible. Their leaders’ decisions and political wisdom can shape a better future for the China-US relationship.

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