The Trump Administration’s China Challenge

Stimson Spotlight

The Trump Administration’s China Challenge

Editor’s note: This analysis is part of 2017 Presidential Inbox — an ongoing Stimson Center series examining the major global challenges and opportunities the Trump administration faces during its first 100 days in office. Click here to read the full series.

By Alan Romberg and Yun Sun

THE CHALLENGE: China’s growing power has been accompanied by both a heightened level of disruptive assertiveness in promoting PRC national interests, on the one hand, and a desire on Beijing’s part to maintain constructive relations with its neighbors and with the United States, on the other. This has generated debates in American political and security circles about how to respond.

Few would argue for a policy of unremitting U.S. hostility or one of excessive accommodation. Either extreme approach would threaten to seriously damage important American interests. Rather, the debate is primarily about how to balance the important opportunities cooperation with China offers with the challenges presented by its enhanced capabilities and assertive behavior.

Getting China right will be a critical, even defining issue for the foreign policy of the next administration. U.S.-PRC ties represent perhaps the most important bilateral relationship in the world — with a profound impact not just on the United States and China but on the East Asia region and the world. What is at stake are not only specific issues on the U.S. agenda with Beijing, but the broader strategic question of the nature of this relationship over the term of the next administration and likely beyond that.

The complex interaction between U.S.-China bilateral relations and the rapidly evolving dynamic in the region means that designing an appropriate and effective China policy will be highly challenging.

THE CONTEXT: During the eight years of the Obama administration, U.S.-China relations have generally maintained a stable trajectory. This has been accompanied, however, by important disagreements on such key security issues as cybersecurity, peace and stability in the South and East China Seas, and sustainable economic relations — all of which have required agile handling. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature approach to U.S.-China relations, “the new model of major power relations,” has been enthusiastically cheered by the Chinese policy community. But it has received at best a lukewarm reaction from Washington due to both the American aversion to pursuing foreign policy by slogans, in general, and Beijing’s efforts to use that slogan to gain American endorsement of what China calls its “core interests and major concerns.”

Although, as it asserts, China’s goal in the region is not to exclude the U.S. at this point, Beijing has obviously sought to reduce the American role and enhance the Chinese role, insisting that PRC interests be given due respect and deference. That has been particularly evident in the PRC’s reclamation program in the South China Sea’s Spratly Islands and its build-up of capabilities there, including development of an infrastructure to sustain a potent military presence. While the issue has frequently been framed as one of “freedom of navigation,” that is only one aspect of what is at heart a matter of strategic influence.

Ironically, the situation appears to have measurably calmed down since the arbitral tribunal decision in June that undercut much of the legal justification for China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea. As much as anything else, it would appear that President Obama and President Xi have come to a tacit understanding that further exacerbation of the tensions there are damaging not only to both sides’ specific regional interests but also to the overall relationship. Neither has yielded on principle, but it is apparent that both have adjusted their behavior — at least for now — in ways that have lowered the level of tension.

Meanwhile, U.S.-China cooperation has become an increasingly important factor in the conflict resolution and meeting development challenges globally. Not only has their economic interdependence grown to make a U.S.-China conflict virtually unthinkable, but a stable, cooperative U.S. -China relationship has made an enormously important contribution to dealing with climate change as well as crises such as Iran’s nuclear program, South Sudan, and Afghanistan.

A particular challenge lies ahead in dealing with the North Korean nuclear weapons program. While this is not a “bilateral” issue, per se — and Washington and Beijing have cooperated more closely in recent times on U.N. sanctions as the PRC’s concern about the DPRK’s nuclear program and other aspects of Pyongyang’s behavior has intensified — the growing probability that the North will acquire the capability to strike the United States with nuclear weapons has raised this issue to the top of the American national security agenda in the region. If and when North Korea develops and potentially deploys such a capability, this will very likely lead to a shift in U.S. priorities in how to handle a direct nuclear threat. What is disturbingly unclear is whether the PRC understands this and the potential consequences for itself and, hence, whether it will reconsider its policy priorities.

On Taiwan, there does not appear to be extreme urgency, but neither side of the Strait has developed the kind of creative and flexible approach the United States has called for. The result is a stalemate between Beijing’s insistence that Taiwan new leader, Tsai Ing-wen, openly endorse “one China” and Tsai’s unwillingness to do that. Sympathies have generally lain with Tsai for her non-provocative approach. On the PRC side, however, perceptions are strikingly different, and she is seen aiming not only at “soft” independence but even at de jure independence through indirect means, such as judicial reinterpretation of the constitution. Most people do not believe this is at all likely. But if it happened and was not otherwise blocked, there is a high probability the mainland would use force, thus potentially drawing in the United States.

PRAGMATIC STEPS: Within the first 100 days, it will be important for the Trump administration to send clear, accurate messages to Beijing to set the boundaries and tone for bilateral relations. This will be a challenge if for no other reason that it will take time to put the new government’s senior officials in place and to review the existing situation and existing policy. Nonetheless, it will be important to do so as soon as possible in order to help accurately convey concerns, foster mutual understanding, and avoid miscalculations.

As indicated, currently, the most pressing issues in East Asia are:

  • Most urgently, North Korea is steadily acquiring the ability to attack the mainland United States with nuclear weapons. As stated above, if such capability is proven, it will decisively change the nature of the issue for the United States. China needs to understand the serious risks this will create and reckon with the heightened possibility of U.S. military action against North Korea. Serious dialogue on these matters is no longer optional.
  • In the South and East China Seas, though the situation currently is relatively calm, both sides need to continue to act in ways that, while promoting their own interests, do not lead to a heightening of tensions and a new cycle of escalating action and reaction. Clear communication on these issues will be essential.

On Taiwan, finding a way to avoid further deterioration and promote sustainable peace and stability will be a challenge for both sides of the Strait, and developing an effective policy to help that process along will be challenging for Washington. Still, this issue requires renewed attention because unstable cross-Strait relations could profoundly affect American interests.

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Alan Romberg is a Distinguished Fellow and the Director of the East Asia program at Stimson. Yun Sun is a Senior Associate with the East Asia program.

Photo credit: David via Flickr