The new U.S. president says he’s ready to stand up to China in its own backyard — but Beijing won’t take that lying down.
- By Michael AuslinMichael Auslin is the author of The End of the Asian Century: War, Stagnation, and the Risks to the World’s Most Dynamic Region.
Watching warily as Donald Trump takes office, China’s leaders are contemplating the prospect of a more assertive U.S. president willing to upend decades of Sino-U.S. relations. Trump’s Asia policy represents the first major reshaping of U.S. policy toward China since the normalization of diplomatic relations in 1979, and, from Beijing’s perspective, it is currently on a worst-case trajectory, heading toward a trade war and a military standoff over China’s basic interests in Asia, including Taiwan.
The 45th president presents a potentially unique challenge for China — but not one wholly unanticipated. Already having strenuously opposed former President Barack Obama’s “pivot” to Asia, Chinese leaders likely view the shift to Trump more as one of degrees, if extreme, than in kind. The tenor of U.S.-China relations has worsened in recent years, despite the regularity of high-level diplomatic engagements and public expressions of common interests.
What Beijing is unused to, however, is Trump’s willingness even before taking office to publicly excoriate China, link economic and security issues, and muse about ending diplomatic bedrocks such as the “One China” policy. In briefly seizing a U.S. Navy underwater drone last month in international waters near the Philippines, the Chinese were making clear that both Obama’s pivot has been ineffective and that Trump’s rhetoric does not scare them. Yet their repeated warnings to Trump that he is flirting with potential disaster indicate that they take his statements seriously and are trying to deter him from harming Chinese interests. Nobody yet knows what either side will do if Beijing fails in that attempt and a more direct confrontation becomes inevitable.
Trump’s approach, even before taking office, has been to keep China off balance. After four decades of U.S. presidents acting largely deferentially toward Beijing, China’s leaders are undoubtedly flummoxed by Trump. His statements challenging the status quo have been paired with signals that he intends to pursue a more normal relationship. His appointment of Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad as ambassador was welcomed in Beijing, given Branstad’s past connections with Chinese President Xi Jinping and long-standing economic ties to China. The subtext of Trump’s meeting with Jack Ma, one of China’s wealthiest businessmen and founder of internet retailing giant Alibaba, was that trade and investment between the two countries are already flourishing. And Beijing saw plenty to welcome in Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership — a move that gave China an edge in creating a broad, regional trade pact while relegating America at best to a series of bilateral pacts — even if it was not intended as an olive branch to China.
But Trump’s repeated assertions that he will not be bound by past precedent outweigh his conciliatory moves in Chinese eyes. As Beijing contemplates the pendulum in Asia potentially swinging back against it in coming days, the Chinese government has begun to try and stake out its ground. Xi, for example, in a widely disseminated New Year’s speech made clear that his country will protect its national interests and prevent any foreign moves to restrict its freedom of action in Asia. Unwilling to be seen as being put on the defensive, Beijing is likely to push back even harder, testing the new president and his team and trying to get them to back down.
China’s greatest fear is that Trump will encourage, if not support, moves toward Taiwan’s independence. This potentially threatens the geopolitical integrity of the country, as it could strengthen similar movements in other separatist regions, such as Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Already on alert after Trump’s unprecedented phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, Beijing warned against allowing Tsai to stop over in the United States this month during an international trip. More threateningly, the government has stated that any attempt by Trump to change the status quo over Taiwan would cross a “red line” and incur “revenge.” A meeting in the flesh between Trump and Tsai would cause the most serious crisis in U.S.-China relations since normalization in 1979.
North Korea could also become an arena where China tests the new president. Trump recently tweeted that Beijing has done nothing to help denuclearize Pyongyang while “taking out massive amounts of money [and] wealth” from the United States. Years of failed diplomacy with North Korea have dampened any hope for new talks, but Beijing could respond to Trump’s accusation by increasing economic aid to Kim Jong Un, dropping support for recent U.N. sanctions, and ending any attempt at or, in the view of some, pretense of restraining Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs. With Pyongyang about to test a new intercontinental ballistic missile that can potentially reach U.S. territory, any such Chinese assistance would alarm America’s national security establishment and also put South Korea and Japan, two of Washington’s closest allies in the region, further on edge.
In addition, Trump should expect China to target U.S. allies more aggressively. In recent weeks, China has sent bombers around Taiwan and fighter jets near Japanese and South Korean airspace, as well as very publicly sailed its sole aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait and past Japanese waters. This month, China reduced the number of charter flights from South Korea in response to Seoul’s decision last year to host a new American anti-ballistic missile system and is reported to be working with Russia on ways to defeat the defensive weapon. Moreover, Australia has decided against undertaking freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, and the Philippines’s shift to China under President Rodrigo Duterte is well underway. And Beijing could further rattle Japanese nerves by increasing its military activities near the contested Senkaku Islands — also known as the Diaoyu — in the East China Sea.
Given Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson’s confirmation testimony directly challenging Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea, which indicated that the new administration would consider denying China access to its newly reclaimed islands, the slow boil of the past several years over China’s expansion in Pacific waters may heat up rapidly. Backing down in the face of American threats would only open Beijing up to pressure from other Asian nations. Hence, the alarming warnings of a potential “devastating confrontation.”
The toxic combination of Chinese fear and confidence makes some kind of miscalculation or accident more likely. With tensions running high, U.S. military leaders in the Pacific should prepare for even more aggressive action from Chinese naval and air forces, possibly risking a repeat of the April 2001 collision between a Chinese fighter jet and a U.S. Navy surveillance plane. Given Xi’s New Year’s vow to protect the country’s “maritime rights and interests,” the latest in a raft of similar rhetoric, it will be more difficult to contain the aftermath of any new accident. Equally, China may increase its maritime intimidation of smaller nations in the South China Sea, daring the United States to uphold its promises of freedom of navigation.
There are good reasons for China not to undertake any of the actions listed above. Trump’s statements, after all, are just that, and he may well moderate his positions now that he has taken office, as have most of his predecessors, once he gets a full picture of the implications of his possible policies. Similarly, Beijing could decide to focus on the slim olive branches held out by the new president, such as his ambassadorial pick and business meeting with Ma. In contrast, continuing to try and intimidate both the United States and its allies could backfire, resulting in a hardened attitude by the new administration and a greater willingness to challenge Chinese interests.
There is little reason to believe that Xi intends to bend his knee before Trump. His policies since taking power in late 2012 have instead served to increase China’s global engagement, its assertiveness, and its belligerence in protecting its national interests. His statements have made clear his intent to take a place on the world stage equal, if not superior, to the United States. His continuing assertion of these goals, even in the face of a domestic economic slowdown and international setbacks (such as The Hague ruling against Chinese claims in the South China Sea), reveals the importance he attaches to a strong foreign policy.
There is no question, however, that Trump has already changed the dynamic in U.S.-China relations. For years, it has been American presidents who have chosen not to antagonize Beijing or exacerbate tensions with China and Chinese leaders who have been willing to push the envelope. In boldly, and riskily, seizing the initiative even before being sworn in, Trump may have turned the tables on his Chinese counterparts. It may now be China’s leaders who tread more cautiously.
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