The unusual run-in that President-elect Donald Trump has had with China is a matter of great concern and should not be ignored. It began with a phone call to Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen on December 2, breaking the protocol that had operated for 37 years, when no US president had spoken to his Taiwanese counterpart.
US scholar Oriana Mastro notes in a blog post that the call could
well have been unintentional, but typical of Trump, he resorted to
bluster in defending the call, asking whether China had asked the US “if
it was OK to devalue their currency, heavily tax our products going
into their country or to build a massive military complex in the middle
of the South China Sea? I don’t think so.”
On Saturday and Sunday, the world watched bemused as Trump lashed
out at China for seizing an American drone that was doing some
hydrographic/surveillance work on the high seas off China. After
criticising China for stealing the drone, Trump raised the ante by
declaring that China could keep it, thus, blocking an easy resolution to
the issue. Trump’s signaling on China is unpredictable. Earlier in the
month, he appointed Terry Branstead, the governor of Iowa as the
Ambassador to China. Branstead has excellent ties in China reaching up
to Xi Jinping.
Speaking at the Halifax Security Forum several weeks ago, US Pacific
Commander Admiral Harry Harris observed that “Capability x Resolve =
deterrence”. The element of resolve seems to be missing in the US
responses to Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea. Obama admin’s
weak response is underscored by the fact that the drone was captured in
Philippine’s exclusive economic zone and outside even the so-called
nine-dash line that China claims as a maritime border. With the TPP dead
in the water, a key weapon in the Obama administration’s ‘pivot’ to
Asia appears to have lost steam. Its policy seems confined to rotating
F-22 fighters through the region.
China is not unaware that it was the period in the wake of Nine
Eleven, when the US was focused on Iraq and then Afghanistan, that it
had an unchallenged rise in the South-east Asian region. It was aided by
the 2008 economic melt-down which the Chinese handled well with their
massive stimulus to enhance their relative standing in the world system.
Even so, as a country that is simultaneously a great power and a rising
one, it needs to ensure that the old super-power is not hostile to it.
The Trump presidency could offer a period of opportunity. An erratic
president, with a poor grasp of policy could stumble in a range of
areas, giving Beijing a free run not only in South-east Asia, but
Central and West Asia as well. On the other hand, notwithstanding the
rhetoric, it could be that Trump is softening Beijing for a deal.
China is not the kind of country to get into a deal due to pressure
or in a hurry. It is quite capable of pushing its interest in a
long-term framework and battening down the hatches while waiting out the
Trump era. On the other hand, it could cause considerable trouble for
the US through its linkages in Afghanistan, Central Asia and Iran. But
with a slowing economy, there are domestic compulsions for Xi Jinping
not to get locked into a confrontation with the US.
Dealing with China is an extremely complex issue. The Chinese world
view is very different from that of the US and its allies, and its
policy-making process quite opaque. The Trump style disdains complexity,
but unless Trump reveals some of the genius of Ronald Reagan,
simplistic answers to complex issues will pose great danger to the
As outlined in his campaign, it would appear that hostility to
Islamist radicalism, rather than China, forms his core belief. In this,
he sees Israel as his close ally and the battle to come in
civilisational terms. In line with this, Russia is part of the solution,
rather than a problem. There are other indicators suggesting that his
focus will remain in the Middle-East — the nomination of retired
generals like Mike Flynn as NSA and James Mattis, former Centcom chief,
as Secretary of Defense.
If this is so, don’t be surprised if Trump is willing to cut a deal
with China along the lines of the “New Type of Great Power Relations”
mooted by Xi Jinping in his first meeting with Obama in Sunnylands in
2013. Xi’s view involved (1) no conflict or confrontation, and treating
each other’s strategic intentions objectively; (2) mutual respect,
including for each other’s core interests and major concerns; and (3)
mutually beneficial cooperation, by abandoning the zero-sum game
mentality and advancing areas of mutual interest.
In geopolitical terms, this could mean Trump reverting to the
American position on Taiwan and accepting Chinese primacy in the South
China Sea. The problem is trying to understand what the Chinese would be
willing to offer the US in exchange. Let’s be clear, Trump the
businessman, is unlikely to offer a free lunch.
December 20, 2016