Will Trump Strike a Grand Bargain With China?

The candidate used broad and blustery rhetoric to discuss the Communist state. Here's what his actual policy might look like.

BEIJING, CHINA - NOVEMBER 12:  Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) answers media's question during a press conference with U.S. President Barack Obama at the Great Hall of People on November 12, 2014 in Beijing, China. U.S. President Barack Obama pays a state visit to China after attending the 22nd Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Economic Leaders' Meeting.  (Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - NOVEMBER 12: Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) answers media's question during a press conference with U.S. President Barack Obama at the Great Hall of People on November 12, 2014 in Beijing, China. U.S. President Barack Obama pays a state visit to China after attending the 22nd Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Economic Leaders' Meeting. (Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images)

Donald J. Trump, President-elect of the United States, spent much of his antagonistic campaign blaming China for many of America’s economic ills, and repeatedly making thinly veiled threats of a U.S. trade war with Beijing. Yet on the evening of Nov. 13, he had what his team described as a cordial call with Chinese President Xi Jinping. How should Trump engage with the carefully selected leaders of the Chinese Communist Party? And how might they respond? —The ChinaFile Editors

Melissa Chan, broadcast reporter:

American citizens have been distracted, trapped in a months-long, nationwide reality television show with contestants Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Already disinclined to pay much attention to the country’s foreign affairs, few beyond those in policy circles have worried as Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte made overtures to China over the last few months and flounced his country’s long alliance with the United States. Arguably, with political and military bilateral relations at stake, the first thing a President Donald Trump might want to do is to reach out and reengage with Manila, and to push back against China’s steady assertiveness in the region.

Some believe, however, that the U.S.-Philippines relationship is quite safe. Duterte has postured to the people, telling President Obama to go to hell and threatening to end joint military exercises between the two countries, but his defense secretary, Delfin Lorenzana, is actually an establishment pick with close and long relationships with his American military counterparts. He spent years overseas as a defense attaché and worked at the embassy in Washington, D.C. Still, events in the Philippines have shown how quickly China can step into the picture when the United States isn’t looking.

This takes us back to the Asia pivot.

Even before dealing with the Philippines, the first thing Trump should do in regards to China when he takes office is to reassess, redefine, and recommit to the Asia pivot. Any action with the Philippines or any other country, or comment on any incident (including current events in Hong Kong) should happen as part of a greater strategy in the region. The United States has long denied that the pivot has been meant to contain China. But China’s own actions, from the South China Sea to its unwillingness to pressure a nuclear North Korea, has rattled its neighbors. If America’s intention is to ensure stability in the region, its pivot will mean curbing China’s power plays.

Despite the fact that it was then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who rolled out the pivot, it is not inconceivable that a Trump administration would take up the mantle. Peter Navarro, one of Trump’s policy advisors, recently observed in a piece in Foreign Policy that “U.S. partners like Japan, South Korea, India, and even Myanmar and Vietnam continue to seek closer ties with Washington across the spectrum,” going on to add that a Trump presidency would increase the size of the U.S. navy. That would certainly show that this time, the rebalance will be a real one. Another possibility for Trump might include a first visit as president to Asia, with a policy speech delivered in Japan.

Trump’s major challenge will be his campaign commitment against the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). He will need to demonstrate some kind of economic pillar to the pivot, but without the TPP. That might not be possible.

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, writing in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, says that “China’s model is out of step with where the Asia-Pacific wants to go; it reflects the region’s distant past, rather than the principled future the United States and many others want, and its approach is proving counterproductive.” The defense secretary has doubled down on the pivot—Trump needs to do so, as well.

Zha Daojiong, Senior Fellow, Asia Society:

The bilateral relationship between China and the United States is structured in such a firm manner that a change of presidency on the U.S. side or a change of top leadership on the Chinese side is unlikely to be as earth-shaking as some analysts make it out to be. The American election system has worked. China works with whomever lands in the White House, regardless of what was said on the campaign trail.

The set of issues for both countries — from economics, to security, to regional and global governance — will remain unchanged under President Trump. So, the expectation from around the world is that neither Beijing nor Washington seeks to rock the boat of regional/global tranquility.

Trump did not hold public office or rise to any military rank. There is little knowledge about him in China. Also, his election support team did not make as strong an effort to relate to Chinese think tanks as that of the Democratic candidate.

So, from this point on, then, Beijing should make a great, proactive effort to relate to the new administration in Washington, D.C. Also, Beijing won’t be the only one in town, and it will have to compete hard for Trump’s attention.

On some of the headline issues, China was not a major campaign issue for either Trump or Clinton. Neither candidate chose to give a speech on China policy at any considerable length. That is a reflection of the reality that China was not on the mind of average voters. It was rather the China think-tankers that projected a different image.

It would be unwise and counterproductive for China to take Trump’s campaign rhetoric at face value. After all, Trump will be working within an established and mature U.S. governing system.

Among many other channels of communication between Beijing and Washington, the bilateral Strategic and Economic Dialogue should continue, as it offers a channel for a wide range of bureaucracies on both sides to relate to each other. Each side must find ways to make the dialogue more productive to willing participants.

In terms of managing East Asian regional security, well, it is very, very important to keep in mind that all countries and societies dotting the maritime space—not just the United States and China, regardless of military alliance arrangements in place or desired—have a say about its governance. Although the populations of these countries do not get a vote on either Beijing’s or Washington’s course of action, there is a silent majority out there. That preference, though often unarticulated in the Western or Chinese media, will be the decisive check on American and/or Chinese behaviors.

Andrew J. Nathan, professor of political science, Columbia University:

During the infotainment program called “The Candidate,” we saw two characters named Trump. One was a tough guy who never loses. If this character takes office, he’ll slap tariffs on China, enhance secondary sanctions on North Korea that will hurt the Chinese finance industry, squeeze more money out of Japan and South Korea to support even stronger U.S. forces in Northeast Asia to contain China, increase arms sales and diplomatic support to Taiwan, enhance security cooperation with Vietnam, India, and other regional partners, and build up the U.S. Navy and deploy it more frequently in the South China Sea. I don’t expect Chinese President Xi Jinping to fade away in the face of these actions, so we will be in for an intensified arms race and (at a minimum) rising tension in U.S.-China relations that will alarm our allies and security partners who live closer to China than we do.

The other Trump was the practitioner of the art of the deal. If he takes office, he will look for an economic and strategic grand bargain with China, some version of a regional condominium that reduces American resistance to the spread of Chinese military and political influence in Asia in exchange for greater opening of the Chinese economy to U.S. exports and investment, Chinese investment in U.S. infrastructure — and perhaps a few permits for Trump hotels and towers thrown in as a side payment. I imagine Xi would like this deal. But Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the ASEAN countries, and Australia would no longer be able to count on U.S. support as a counterbalance to Chinese influence, and they’d either have to tilt to China or (in the case of Japan and perhaps even South Korea and Taiwan) decide to build up their independent military capabilities or even go nuclear.

Neither of these outcomes is desirable. I therefore hope that President Trump will play neither of these characters in office, but will build on the well-balanced China policy that President Obama and Secretary Clinton crafted. Under this policy, the United States sought cooperation with China where common interests existed, such as climate change, North Korea, and nonproliferation, and where interests clashed — such as over the issue of whose navy would dominate the South China Sea — the United States neither overreacted nor retreated, but held firm to its positions on lawful resolution of disputes and freedom of navigation. Trump should defend American interests with respect to Taiwan, the Senkaku Islands, Chinese economic protectionism, and human rights. But to do so effectively, he has to focus on those factors that will determine how both China and our Asian allies assess U.S. power: our domestic problems. We need to bridge political polarization, diminish inequality, and rebuild our infrastructure if we are to have the credibility that we need to maintain our influence in Asia. If we can’t make things work at home, we will rightly be seen as a has-been power, and other nations will act accordingly.

David Schlesinger, founder, Tripod Advisors:

Pity the Chinese human rights campaigner or intellectual who looked to the United States as a beacon, a model, a source of pressure or merely a font of rhetorical succor. What now under President Trump — what signals can he give to China, what signals will he give to China, and what cues will Xi be looking for and receive?

In 1989, American journalists brought China’s Tiananmen demonstrations to living rooms and the world, the students’ Goddess of Democracy rhyming visually and symbolically with the Statue of Liberty. The U.S. Embassy was a space of asylum for Fang Lizhi. American lawmakers used their bully pulpits. Sanctions were imposed, for a time, and some kind of bottom line was visible if not always totally clear.

The State Department published its annual Human Rights Report — never much more than an annoying goad in the Chinese side, to be sure, but at least a rhetorical reminder that human rights were (are) a fundamental part of U.S. foreign policy.

But what happens when a U.S. president models himself after strongmen? Trump’s praise of Putin, in no way a human rights paragon, is not encouraging. Will the United States have any credibility, even if it wished to have, to protest the beating or harassment or jailing of a Chinese reporter when Mr. Trump’s anti-journalist rhetoric and the actions of his supporters have been plainly on view for the world to see? Will a Chinese labor activist feel any moral support at her back if a Trump administration turns up the heat on domestic expressions of dissent? Will a Chinese NGO, fighting a draconian new law and regulations, find any joy from the United States, or only the negative example of the potential defunding and harassment of Planned Parenthood, itself an NGO, in the United States?

To be clear, Republicans have traditionally been strong on holding China to human rights standards; a Republican was president during Tiananmen. This has been a bipartisan issue. But President-elect Trump is a Republican in name only, and his proclivities seem to tend much more to the authoritarian.

In the current atmosphere within China, I can even imagine President Xi thinking that some compromise on trade or currency might be a reasonable exchange in return for a more isolationist Trump administration giving a freer hand in the South China Sea and a more authoritarian Trump giving a freer hand at home. What a bargain.

Even if these are not Trump’s intentions, the signs that they could be are there. And if he doesn’t want these things to happen, he will need to change the signing firmly and quickly to avoid a very tragic result.

Paul Haenle, director, Carnegie-Tsinghua Center:

President-elect Donald Trump needs to move quickly to clarify his approach to the Asia-Pacific. Unlike Secretary Clinton, Trump does not have a track record on how he views U.S. interests and policy objectives in the region. Foreign observers have naturally followed his campaign rhetoric closely to gleam insights into what types of policies he might pursue once in office. But the emerging articulations of Trump’s vision for the Asia-Pacific contrast strongly with many of Trump’s campaign promises. The result is a potentially dangerous gap in expectations.

Beijing has concluded that Trump’s transactional, businessman predispositions will lead him to be less inclined to inject human rights and values into his policies and dialogue with China. This may be so. But Chinese are also convinced that Trump’s election signals the ushering in of a period of American isolationism in which Washington will retreat from the world, including from Asia, and abandons its allies. This prospect is warmly welcomed in Beijing. Some Chinese scholars have gone a step further even by contemplating strategic opportunities for Beijing in the South China Sea or in their relations with Southeast Asian states as a consequence of American withdrawal. There is an overarching expectation that Trump’s election will mean less strategic pressure on China in the region.

China may be in for a rude awakening. In the last two days, the policy pronunciations that have emerged from Trump’s advisors paint a very different picture of the president-elect’s Asia policy. In an article for FP, Alexander Gray and Navarro liken Trump’s vision for the region to Ronald Reagan’s “peace through strength” strategy, wherein a robust a U.S. military presence in the Pacific, strong support for Taiwan as a “beacon of democracy,” and U.S. alliances as “bedrocks of stability in the region,” are key components. To support such objectives, the advisors suggest Trump will seek to repeal defense sequestration, rebuild the U.S. Navy, and stand up to Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.

Gray and Navarro’s “peace through strength” vision sounds quite different from the expectation of U.S. retrenchment that many Chinese developed over the course of the campaign. Paraphrasing former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, the authors of the article assert that U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific is essential to promote U.S. liberal values and serves as a critical source of regional stability. They criticize the Obama administration’s weak implementation of the military component of its “pivot” policy, precisely the aspect Beijing perceives as being most hostile to China, and explain that despite Trump’s suggestions that America’s allies were not contributing their fair share to sustain U.S. security commitments, his commitment to U.S. allies was unquestionable.

The potential danger is that Beijing’s expectations about Trump’s China policy — that he will pay less attention to the Asia-Pacific and place less emphasis on U.S. alliance relationships — may not come to fruition. This could result in the relationship beginning on an uneasy or negative footing. Former president George W. Bush, who I worked for on the National Security Council staffs, always operated from a principle of “no surprises,” which he believed was a key stabilizing feature in the relationship with China. In that spirit, the first thing the Trump administration can do to promote a positive and constructive U.S.-China relationship is provide a clear articulation of his China and Asia policy in order to allow countries in the region to set realistic expectations for where and how they will be able to work with the new U.S. administration, and areas where policymakers will need to address and manage differences.

Image: Getty

Melissa Chan is a national and foreign affairs reporter who previously worked as a broadcast correspondent for Al Jazeera. She is a collaborator with the Global Reporting Centre and a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Zha Daojiong is a professor of international political economy at Peking University.
David Schlesinger is founder of Tripod Advisors and former Chairman of Thomson Reuters China.

Paul Haenle holds the Maurice R. Greenberg Director's Chair at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center. He previously served as White House China Director on the National Security Council staffs of former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.