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Partners or Rivals?
Trump's shake-up overshadows China-U.S. relations
By An Gang | NO. 1 JANUARY 5, 2017


Finished SAIC General Motors cars line up neatly at a production base in Wuhan, capital of central China's Hubei Province, on June 14, 2016 (XINHUA)

China-U.S. relations have encountered some turbulence due to the inappropriate words and acts of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump in the days before his inauguration. After having an unprecedented phone conversation with the leader of Taiwan authorities, Trump took the opportunity of his "thank you" tour in Iowa to again play up the "imbalanced" trade situation with China. He even argued, "I don't know why we have to be bound by a 'one China' policy, unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade."

Many have worried that by aggressively touching on sensitive issues regarding China's core interest, Trump has in effect made "uncertainty" the most certain outcome of his China policy prior to taking office. Behind such uncertainty is a widespread fear of discontinuity and a lack of professionalism and predictability in U.S. foreign policy.

Using Taiwan as a bargaining chip, Trump intends to demand more favorable conditions with regard to U.S. trade with China and more concessions from the Chinese side on the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue. The president-elect declared he would place a high priority on pushing U.S. economic growth, repatriating manufacturing to the United States and creating more jobs. Therefore, Trump is likely to demand that China reduces exports to, and expands imports from, the United States, and opens up China's market to U.S. Internet enterprises.

More and more signs are appearing that Trump, a business tycoon with no political experience, is very likely to handle China-U.S. relations in a mercantile and emotional way. Trump airs an attitude that "if you do not stretch a point in matter that I care about, I will make you pay a price in issues that you care about," treating serious international relations as trade deals.

His emerging diplomatic policymaking team also causes much concern to the outside world. From National Security Advisor Michael Flynn to Secretary of Defense James Mattis, from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, and from head of the National Trade Council Peter Navarro to top White House adviser on Asia Matthew Pottinger, most of these officials are older people with backgrounds in military intelligence, business or right-wing politics. What's more, most of them lack experience in diplomacy and China-related affairs but believe in traditional geopolitics. Thus, it cannot be ruled out that these U.S. diplomatic decision makers may take a prejudiced attitude in their dealings with China.

Core interests 

History shows that the most risky situation for China-U.S. relations is when the two nations have a showdown on issues related to their core interests. For China, issues concerning its territorial and sovereign integrity and the security of its political system are definitely core interests. For Trump, the U.S. core interests comprise continuing economic recovery to lay the foundation to "make America great again" and the United States maintaining its global, maritime military superiority and navigating in key waters such as the South China Sea.

National core interests often leave little room for maneuver. Once a nation sees its core interests challenged, it will surely launch reprisals, which will make both sides pay a heavy price. On the Taiwan issue, if Trump dares to overturn the "one China policy" that previous U.S. administrations and more than 160 nations have adhered to, many Chinese scholars have suggested that Beijing should break off its official relationship with Washington. China's Foreign Ministry has already sent a clear warning: "adherence to the one China principle serves as the political foundation for the development of China-U.S. ties. If this foundation wobbles and is weakened, then there is no possibility for the two nations to grow their relations in a sound and steady way and cooperate on key areas." Brookings Institution senior fellow Richard Bush and former senior director of Asian Affairs for the U.S. National Security Council Evan Medeiros have also reminded Trump that "Taiwan is not a 'tradable good'."

The Taiwan authorities, regarded as "an ally" by the Trump team, are paying the price. On December 20, 2016, African country Sao Tome and Principe announced it was severing diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Taiwan's authorities should be fully aware of the signal which shows Beijing beginning to adjust its policy toward Taiwan. Faced with the changing situation, clinging closely to the United States may be one of Taiwan's few choices, but can the Trump administration really bear the weight of Taiwan's embrace?


China's ship-based helicopter guards Chinese soldiers boarding the USS Stockdale, a U.S. missile destroyer, during the Rim of the Pacific war games on July 20, 2016 (XINHUA)

Defensive measures 

In a broader context, along with the rapid growth of China's national strength, the interests of China and those of the United States are more interwoven than at any time in history, thus China's position in agenda-setting in China-U.S. relations has also grown a lot.

If the Trump administration chooses to harm China's interest in a certain field, it will find that China has no need to take counter measures in other fields, as vengeance in the same field is enough to annoy the United States.

In terms of trade and finance, it is to be expected that China is beginning to prepare a suite of measures to counter any U.S.-initiated provocation. Should Trump willfully impose high tariffs on Chinese products or maliciously declare China as a currency "manipulator," as he advocated during the election campaign, China will respond in kind by dumping its U.S. treasuries or increasing tariffs on U.S. products. In the worst case scenario, U.S. automakers might be charged sky high fines for price manipulation and farmers in the U.S. Mid-West could start to complain about their own government, whose irresponsible remarks and actions have caused them to lose lucrative Chinese markets.

This zero-sum game scenario would undoubtedly cause China to suffer, but the United States would suffer more. Trump would soon find that his lofty goal of achieving 4 percent economic growth would vanish into thin air.

The South China Sea issue has been a major arena for China-U.S. geopolitical gaming in recent years. In the last half of 2016, along with the warming of China-Philippine relations, the circumstances surrounding the South China Sea issue began to tilt in favor of China. In late December 2016, the Chinese Navy seized a U.S. Navy underwater drone in the South China Sea, but later gave it back. The event also reminds Trump and his "military" cabinet that if they want to use the South China Sea issue to test or embarrass China, they might end up finding themselves being tested and embarrassed. China has already gained certain tactical advantages in the issue with increasingly more means of counterattack.

China and the United States are rivals that cannot take one another lightly. Stable development of their bilateral relations conforms to the fundamental interests of each other and is also an important precondition for world peace and prosperity. The top-level officials and working teams of the two governments should build channels for smooth communication as soon as possible to fully understand each other's appeals and concerns, charting a map at an early date for the development of bilateral relations in the upcoming four years.

Just as Chinese President Xi Jinping stressed during the phone call in which he congratulated Trump on his victory in the election, cooperation is the only correct choice for China and the United States. The willingness of the Chinese side to develop a better and more mature China-U.S. relationship is sincere. China will not jump to conclusions based on the president-elect's personal vents or tweets. However, his understanding of China-U.S. relations and of the whole point of diplomacy should be enriched as soon as possible. At the present crossroads, any careless act may cause the bilateral relationship to degenerate from mutual scepticism to vicious competition and even to the brink of military conflict, thereby bringing disaster on the two nations and the world at large.

Trump needs to understand clearly that the top priority for the China-U.S. relationship is setting up a new paradigm of bilateral, strategic coordination rather than seeking to cause each other trouble.

The author is an op-ed contributor to Beijing Review and a researcher at the Pangoal Institution

Copyedited by Chris Surtees

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