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Donald Trump’s China policy muddle

To tackle the little bully, North Korea, US President Donald Trump (like Barack Obama) is seeking the help of the big bully, China


As US President Donald Trump woos Chinese President Xi Jinping, a clearer American stance against China’s territorial revisionism in Asia has become doubtful. Photo: Reuters
As US President Donald Trump woos Chinese President Xi Jinping, a clearer American stance against China’s territorial revisionism in Asia has become doubtful. Photo: Reuters

Besieged by allegations of collusion between his presidential campaign associates and Russia, US President Donald Trump—to Beijing’s relief—finds himself with little space to revamp his predecessor’s policy and take on China. So, rather than end what he described as China’s free ride on trade and security issues, Trump is pursuing a policy little different from that of Barack Obama, on whose watch Beijing undertook coercive actions with impunity in the South and East China Seas.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s impending visit to Mar-a-Lago—Trump’s estate in Florida and self-proclaimed “Southern White House”—will highlight the new US administration’s effort to build a cooperative relationship with Beijing, although on the basis of flinty reciprocity. For example, to tackle the little bully, North Korea, Trump (like Obama) is seeking the help of the big bully, China.

Trump is pursuing a policy little different from that of Barack Obama, on whose watch Beijing undertook coercive actions with impunity in the South and East China Seas

As the White House stated on 20 March, it wants China to “step in and play a larger role” on the North Korean issue. But the previous two US administrations also relied on sanctions and Beijing to tame North Korea, only to see that reclusive nation significantly advance its nuclear and missile capabilities.

A greater US reliance on China is unlikely to salvage Washington’s failed North Korea policy but will almost certainly result in Beijing exacting a stiff price from the Trump administration, including in relation to the South China Sea. Beijing has already savoured early success in scuttling Trump’s effort to modify America’s long-standing “One China” policy.

Secretary of state Rex Tillerson’s recent visit to Beijing, in fact, suggested that the US is willing to bend over backwards to curry favour with China. Instead of delivering a clear message in Beijing, Tillerson transformed into a Chinese parrot, mouthing China’s favourite catchphrases like “mutual respect”, “non-confrontation” and “win-win” cooperation that are code for the US accommodating China’s core interests and accepting a new model of bilateral ties, with the two powers placed on a largely equal footing.

A greater US reliance on China is unlikely to salvage US’s failed North Korea policy but will almost certainly result in Beijing exacting a stiff price from the Trump administration, including in relation to the South China Sea

It was music to Chinese ears as Tillerson echoed several Chinese bromides about the US-China relationship, including “win-win” cooperation—a phrase that Chinese analysts impishly refer to as entailing a double win for China. For Beijing, the tag “mutual respect” holds great strategic importance: It is taken to mean that the US and China would band together (in a sort of G-2) to manage international problems by respecting each other’s “core interests”. This, in turn, implies that the US would avoid challenging China on the Taiwan and Tibet issues and in Beijing’s new “core-interest” area—the South China Sea.

Worse still, Tillerson articulated the catchphrases by parroting Chinese President Xi Jinping’s words. For example, Xi said in November 2014 during a joint news conference with Obama in Beijing that “China is ready to work with the United States to make efforts in a number of priority areas and putting into effect such principles as non-confrontation, non-conflict, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation.” Tillerson repeated the exact same principles twice in Beijing.

Tillerson’s words were gleefully splashed all over the official Chinese media. For example, the Global Times gloated: “Xi highlighted the significance of the Sino-U.S. relationship and Tillerson expressed the US’ commitment to the principle of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation in terms of developing its ties with China, which is exactly the core content of the China-raised major power relationship between Beijing and Washington.” It pointed out the Obama administration did not use those phrases.

The ‘win-win’ cooperation implies that US would avoid challenging China on Taiwan and Tibet issues and in Beijing’s new ‘core-interest’ area—the South China Sea

The Trump administration’s muddled China policy has made it harder for it to secure meaningful results in negotiations with Beijing on security and trade issues.

Indeed, Tillerson personifies the confusion. During his confirmation process, he implicitly criticized Obama’s pussy-footing on China by describing Chinese expansion in the South China Sea as “akin to Russia’s taking Crimea” from Ukraine. He first said that the US should “send China a clear signal” by blocking its access to the seven artificial islands it has built, but later backed away by saying that the US ought only to be “capable” of restricting such access in the event of a contingency.

Now, as Trump woos Xi, a clearer American stance against China’s territorial revisionism in Asia has become doubtful. In fact, there is talk in Washington that the Trump administration has little choice but to accept that China’s territorial gains in the South China Sea cannot be rolled back. Such acceptance, however tacit, is likely to hold security implications for America’s allies and security partners in Asia, because it will embolden Chinese revisionism in other regions—from the East China Sea to the Himalayas—while allowing China to consolidate its penetration and influence in the South China Sea.

Trump administration has little choice but to accept that China’s territorial gains in the South China Sea cannot be rolled back

In recent years, the US has made the most of Asian concerns over China’s increasingly muscular approach by strengthening military ties with allies in Asia and forging security relationships with new friends, including India. However, there has been little credible American pushback against China’s violation of international law in changing the status quo or against its strategy to create a Sinosphere of client nations through the geopolitically far-reaching “one belt, one road” initiative.

America’s neutrality on China-India territorial disputes, for example, is unlikely to change under Trump. The US wants India to serve as a regional bulwark against China by aligning itself with Washington. However, it has been reluctant to take sides in bilateral disputes between China and its neighbours—unless, of course, US interests are directly at stake. Indeed, under Obama, the US increasingly ceded more ground to China, a trend that admittedly began as the Bush administration became preoccupied with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Trump’s ascension to power was bad news for Beijing. Yet, China thus far has not only escaped any punitive American counteraction on trade and security matters, but the expected Trump-Xi bonhomie at Mar-a-Lago is also likely to advertise that the more things change, the more they stay the same in US foreign policy.

Brahma Chellaney is professor at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

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