The Trump Challenge in US-China Relations
By Zhiqun Zhu

The Trump Challenge in US-China Relations

Dec. 14, 2016  |     |  0 comments


Before the 2016 US presidential election, many Chinese stated that they preferred Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton since she would be tough on human rights and security issues, and they believed Trump was a pragmatic businessman whom one could deal with. They may be missing Clinton now as Trump becomes the next US president.


Observers and pundits have speculated on what Trump’s China policy will be like. If Trump’s unexpected phone call with Taiwan’s leader Tsai Ing-wen on December 2 is any indication, US-China relationship will enter a period of uncertainty and instability. Indeed, Trump’s ensuing tweets swiping at China’s currency policy and military buildup in the South China Sea and his December 11 interview with Fox News suggesting he might tear up the “one China” policy hit some of the most sensitive issues in US-China relations and could accidently throw the relationship into a tailspin before he even takes office.


Experts initially were divided on whether Trump’s handling of Tsai’s call was a diplomatic gaffe or a calculated move. Multiple sources later confirmed that the call was pre-arranged, involving weeks of coordination between Trump’s team and the Taiwanese government. Notably Trump did not consult with the White House or the State Department before the call, ignoring established practice. Trump might be unaware of the intensive preparatory work between his team members and Taiwanese authorities since he heard about the call “probably an hour or two before.” Whether his forceful approach on this issue reflects his own thinking or that of his advisers is hard to know.


Will Trump Move Away From the “One China” Policy?


It’s too early to determine whether Trump will stick to the “one China” policy that has underpinned US-China relations for decades. The fact that his comments on China during the presidential campaign were limited to economic issues suggests that he may not fully understand the complexity of the bilateral relationship. Trump is surrounded by advisors who are staunch Taiwan supporters and China critics such as John Bolton, Stephen Yates, and Edwin Feulner. Bolton, a coarse former US ambassador to the UN, has long advocated recognizing Taiwan. The most dreadful thing about Trump is that he does not know what he does not know, which may be taken advantage of by those around him who are eager to influence his policies.


There is a good reason why all US presidents since Richard Nixon, both Republican and Democrat, have avoided direct official contact with Taiwanese leaders. So far, no one from Trump’s transition team has explicitly stated that the new administration will follow the “one China” policy. Instead, Trump seemed to think that he did not have to stick to “one China” unless he could strike a deal with China on other things, including trade, as he told Fox News. Trump’s lack of historical awareness, political preparation, and diplomatic sensitivity makes him vulnerable to and easily shaped and even manipulated by his close advisers and lobbyists.


Taiwan has decades-long extensive lobbying activities in the US, often hiring former US officials, among whom Bob Dole is perhaps the most senior and well-known. A lobbying disclosure document filed with the US Justice Department reveals Dole’s hand in making the 2016 Republican platform the most pro-Taiwan it has ever been. The new edition added language affirming the “Six Assurances” that President Ronald Reagan made to Taiwan’s security in 1982. Unsurprisingly, Dole’s lobbying firm has received money from the Taiwanese government.


To regain China’s trust and to establish a good working relationship with Chinese leaders, Trump will need to reassure Beijing, privately or publicly, that the long-standing US policy toward China will not change and US-Taiwan relations will remain unofficial.


Why Has China Responded Mildly?


China’s response to the Trump-Tsai phone call and Trump’s provocative comments on China has been measured but principled, impressing many people including Henry Kissinger, who recently returned to the US from a meeting with President Xi Jinping in Beijing, and who was consulted by Trump after the election. There may be several reasons for China’s muted response.


First, China was giving Trump the benefit of the doubt since he said it was just “a courtesy call” from Tsai. When Foreign Minister Wang Yi labeled the call as a “small trick” played by Taiwan, he was giving Trump a ladder to step down while blaming Taipei for initiating the call. That Trump is the president-elect and not yet the president leaves Beijing some room to maneuver. By tweeting that Tsai “CALLED ME”, Trump seemed to be backtracking a little, perhaps realizing this was not a simple issue. During the Fox News interview, he continued to emphasize the call was put to him by Taipei. After he hinted that he might ditch the “one China” policy, the Chinese foreign ministry only expressed “serious concern” without lashing out at him strongly. The foreign ministry spokesperson urged Trump and the new US government to understand the seriousness of the Taiwan issue and to continue to stick to the “one-China policy”, which suggests that the Chinese government is still taking a “wait and see” attitude toward Trump before the inauguration.



It is encouraging that Trump intends to improve relations with China by nominating Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, a longtime friend of Xi Jinping, to be the new US ambassador to Beijing.


Secondly, the call caught both Chinese and American officials off guard. Chinese foreign ministry officials are probably still scratching their heads and asking themselves how this could have happened. The internal debate may have delayed a stronger response. In addition, the US foreign policy establishment’s immediate and almost unanimous attack on Trump’s trashing of diplomatic protocol regarding “one China” makes it less urgent for Beijing to respond strongly. It is wise for Beijing to clearly state its principle and position but leave room for improving relations with Trump as he learns to be the president who has to deal with all complicated domestic and international affairs.


Thirdly, China lodged a complaint with the “relevant party on the US side” in Beijing and in Washington, but apparently the complaint went to the Obama administration, prompting the White House and the State Department to reaffirm America’s “one China” policy. A senior foreign ministry official also met with US ambassador Max Baucus in Beijing to lodge an objection. When pressed by journalists at the news briefing on December 5, the foreign ministry spokesman was unwilling to confirm unambiguously whether the representations were addressed to Trump’s transition team directly, which points to the possibility that there might be no direct or smooth communication channel between the Chinese government and Trump’s transition team, which is based in New York.


Yes, Trump and Xi Jinping spoke with each other over the phone earlier, but that was a pre-scheduled courtesy call, and China has been coy about what direct contacts it has with the Trump team. State Councillor Yang Jiechi’s December 9 meeting with Trump’s pick for national security adviser, retired Army Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, during a transit in New York, was the first and only report of such direct contact.


What Lies Ahead for US-China Relations?


It is encouraging that Trump intends to improve relations with China by nominating Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, a longtime friend of Xi Jinping, to be the new US ambassador to Beijing. Branstad and Xi met when Xi made his first trip to Iowa in 1985 during a sister-state/province exchange. At the time Xi was a young county official from Zhengding in Hebei province. The Chinese foreign ministry quickly embraced the appointment and called Branstad an “old friend of the Chinese people”. An envoy with the ears of both Xi and Trump will help smooth the relationship.


However, Trump’s inner circle currently does not include an individual who is well-versed about Asia and China. Trump tends to not play by the rules. He is not interested in daily security briefings by intelligence officials. His combative style decides that he will continue to shoot from the hip.


It is very likely that the Trump administration will strengthen relations with Taiwan especially in elevating official contacts at the ministerial level. Taiwan has unfortunately resumed its role as a bargaining chip in US-China relations. The big question is whether he can do so within the “one China” boundary. Beijing will resist any upgrading of Taiwan-US relations particularly during a DPP administration. From Beijing’s perspective, Tsai Ing-wen has refused to accept the one-China “1992 consensus”. Friendly gestures like high-level contacts or weapons sales from Washington may embolden the DPP government to continue to defy Beijing.


The Taiwanese government’s and public’s desire for more respect and dignity in international affairs is legitimate and understandable. But Taipei needs to consider how to achieve this objective without stoking tensions between the US and China and without worsening relations across the strait. Taipei will soon realize the risk of relying on Trump to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough since he tends to look at complicated political issues from a business perspective and may sell out Taiwan for economic gains. Taiwan wants to improve relations with the US, but not at the cost of being potentially betrayed by the US.


Can China and the US work together during the Trump administration? Trump’s campaign promises include bringing jobs back to America, labeling China a currency manipulator, and slapping 45 percent tariffs on Chinese imports. One will not fail to notice a huge gap between campaign rhetoric and reality. He has a great ambition “to make America great again”. Before long he will realize that America’s future is firmly tied to China’s, and without China’s cooperation, many of his domestic and foreign policy objectives — from job creation to international security — will be hard to achieve.


China is a rival, but it is also a partner that can contribute to America’s economic rebound. In 2015, Chinese investment in the US surpassed US investment in China for the first time. According to the Rhodium Group and the National Committee on US-China Relations, over 90,000 jobs have been created in the US by Chinese investment in the past few years. As Chinese businesses go global, more Chinese investment will come to America and help America to recover, for example by fixing its dilapidated infrastructure.


Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election exacerbated political divisions in the US, which will take a long time to heal. Likewise, his abrasive, eccentric, and unpredictable approach will create a lot of tensions in America’s foreign relations. US-China relations are both cooperative and competitive. Given Trump’s style and inexperience, US-China relations will face some serious and unprecedented challenges when Trump enters the White House. However, the bond between the two societies is solid, and the relationship is resilient. One does not need to be too pessimistic about the future of US-China relations.

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