U.S. relations with China have ebbed and flowed over the decades. It’s current and future state is unclear with Donald Trump as president. The Trump administration has not presented a coherent explanation of how it views China, what kind of relationship it seeks to nurture, or how it plans to operate.To be sure, the president has been anything but consistent—from suggesting that Taiwan could be used as a pawn to saying he would consult with China’s President Xi before engaging Taiwan’s leaders. And he has touted his personal chemistry with President Xi and admonished Beijing for doing “NOTHING” on North Korea.
He has even attacked China for under-bidding American jobs and then embellished China’s modest concessions on market access.But for all the administration’s shortcomings, Trump’s trump card has been his personal relationship with Xi Jinping. The Mar-a-Lago, Florida meeting in March 2017, while focused on building personal bonds rather than resolving diplomatic relations, was well-conceived and well-executed. Trump garnered genuine high regard and respect for Xi, and Xi grew to value his personal relationship with Trump as well.Focusing on North Korea has also kept U.S.
-China relations on track. The Trump administration has been right to urge China to be more active. Through both intensive engagement and the credible threat of sanctions on Chinese companies, the U.
S. government secured some gains with China—implementation of a coal ban, support for harsher sanctions at the United Nations, and increased inspection of Chinese commerce crossing the border with North Korea. Going forward, Beijing’s willingness to work with the United States will depend on China’s trust that the Trump administration knows what it is doing, that it is aware of China’s interests on the Korean Peninsula, that it is not provoking a difficult situation with inflammatory rhetoric, and that it does not risk charging into a planned or unplanned war. Trade attitudes have ebbed and flowed over the past year as well. After weeks of fiery campaign rhetoric (including promises to name China a currency manipulator right after taking the oath of office and imposing a 45 percent tariff on imports), initial interactions with the Chinese have been, on balance, positive. The current administration should look back on the priorities the previous administrations have placed in enhancing U.
S.-China relations. Some of these include the South China Sea and human rights. U.
S. options in the South China Sea tend to involve military deployments, exercises, and freedom of navigation operations. But U.S. prestige and impact in Southeast Asia depend upon visible involvement and leadership on South China Sea issues, so consequently there must be a diplomatic component supplementing the work of the Pacific Command. As for human rights, Trump has taken the position that the United States needs to balance its concerns with other issues, not only in China but throughout the world. The world looks to the U.S.
-China bilateral relationship for signs of stability or strain, and observers cannot forget that the relationship, like any relationship, does not occur in a vacuum. It should be embedded in a larger context of stable U.S. political, security, and economic endeavors.
This will require a great commitment to the region, of strategic thinking, time, resources, and energy.