Is Trump Starting Something With China He Can’t Finish?

Beijing laughed at Trump’s hard-right advisers. Now that he’s rewriting decades of U.S.-China policy, it's deploying bombers.


BEIJING — In the months leading up to the American elections, Chinese officials viewed the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency as a manageable, even welcome, respite from growing friction with the outgoing Obama administration. But that blasé outlook has morphed into outright alarm and a spate of heated warnings, after Trump called into question four decades of policy and single-handedly undermined the bedrock of U.S.-China relations.

Now Beijing is flying long-range bombers over the disputed South China Sea, and warning of a collapse of U.S.-Sino relations if the president-elect continues to hint at diplomatic recognition of Taiwan.

Initially excused in Beijing as understandable missteps by a political novice, the president-elect’s provocations represent the first volley of a deliberate, aggressive new posture toward China that seeks to reshape the relationship between the world’s two biggest economies. Powered by a coterie of hawkish China advisers, Trump seeks to challenge Beijing’s growing military and economic heft in the region by embracing Taiwan, deploying more ships and planes, landing more basing agreements with partners like Vietnam, and forging bilateral trade deals to replace the all-but-dead Trans-Pacific Partnership.

“Guided by conservative advisers that see Beijing as the No. 1 long-term strategic challenge, Trump won’t be afraid to label China a threat, or a great-power competitor, or take Beijing to task when they act in a belligerent or bullying manner,” said Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, a Washington think tank that hosted Trump’s first major foreign policy address in April.

The first signals of this new posture came in Trump’s selection of policy advisors, a group of hard-right China hawks who advocate a much tougher line with Beijing than the engagement that has largely characterized the Obama years.

Michael Pillsbury, a former Pentagon official, warns China has a secret 100-year plan to supplant the United States as the global superpower. Rep. Randy Forbes, an outgoing congressman from Virginia, supports a massive naval buildup to intimidate Beijing in the Asia-Pacific. Peter Navarro, a free trade-bashing economist, has repeatedly warned China is using its economic heft to cow neighbors and weaken the United States, and has long pushed for a warmer U.S. embrace of Taiwan.

The hug came in dramatic fashion Dec. 2, when Trump spoke by phone with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen — a break with decades of U.S. policy, which formally does not recognize Taiwan as a country separate from China. Trump later doubled down on the gambit, saying he did not feel bound by existing U.S.-China policy regarding Taiwan.

In many ways, those hawkish views hark back to a time when the United States had a clear economic and military edge over China. But Beijing’s breakneck military modernization has eroded, if not yet eliminated, U.S. advantages. Its defense spending grew 10 percent last year, and the Chinese defense budget will have doubled between 2010 and 2020, outspending all of Western Europe. Much of that has gone toward ships and anti-ship missiles meant to deny the United States the ability to get close in the event of a military conflict.

That makes a dander-up approach with a nuclear power all the riskier, Danny Russel, the top U.S. diplomat to Asia, told Foreign Policy in an interview. “In that environment, the laws of physics dictate that he who has proximity, and he who has a vast advantage in terms of sheer numbers of vessels and planes … is in a strong position,” Russel said.

And China’s economy is by some measures already the world’s biggest, making it that much harder and counterproductive for the United States to strong-arm Beijing economically, such as through punitive tariffs — especially after the demise of the TPP.

“Taking an extreme opening position in a real estate deal is one thing, but simply alienating an emerging superpower is another,” said Anthony Cordesman, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Granted, Trump’s more hawkish stance on China finds a receptive audience among some current diplomats and military leaders who are frustrated by what they see as an excessively cautious approach to China from Obama’s White House.

“A lot of Asia hands at State are frustrated by the kid gloves we have with China for fear of affecting the trade relationship,” said an Asia specialist at the State Department, speaking on condition of anonymity. “In that respect, Trump’s phone call was refreshing.”

The Pentagon, too, has appeared eager to flex its muscles in the South China Sea, even though Obama has been loath to authorize potentially provocative naval patrols that would push back against China’s excessive territorial claims. On Wednesday, Adm. Harry Harris, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, said the United States is ready to confront China if it continues its aggression in the South China Sea.

“We will not allow a shared domain to be closed down unilaterally, no matter how many bases are built on artificial features in the South China Sea,” he said, referring to a proliferation of military gear like radars and air-defense missiles China has put on atolls it claims.

For months during the U.S. presidential campaign, Chinese officials watched hard-right hawks attach themselves to the Trump team. But Beijing assumed that, even if Trump won, inertia and Washington’s foreign-policy establishment would neuter their impact and prevent any sudden rupture in relations.

“If one is too far away from reality, too far away from truth, you wouldn’t think [the] U.S. government would follow that line,” Fu Ying, Foreign Affairs Committee chair of the National People’s Congress, told Foreign Policy in Beijing just days after the election.

“The report that Michael Pillsbury is advising Trump made people laugh,” she said, calling his book “nonsense.” (Multiple attempts to reach Pillsbury through his publicist were unsuccessful.)

They’re not laughing now. On Wednesday, a spokesperson for China’s Taiwan affairs office expressed serious concern about Trump’s reiterated — and not accidental — desire to rewrite U.S.-China policy. On Sunday, Trump told Fox News, “I don’t know why we have to be bound by a One-China policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade.”

The Chinese official said such statements jeopardized both “peace and stability” and the “political basis of developing China-U.S. relations.” Xinhua, a state-owned news outlet, sought to make things “crystal clear” for the incoming president by accusing him of undercutting the diplomatic agreement between Beijing and Washington that both China and Taiwan form part of “one China,” rather than rival sovereign states. “Any deviation from the One-China policy will be a ‘deal-breaker,’ Xinhua wrote in a scathing op-ed Wednesday.

Trump’s policy shifts, and the whiplash in Beijing, are pushing U.S. officials into damage control while China scrambles to divine just what the Trump administration will mean for the future of an already-volatile relationship. It’s a task made all the harder by Trump’s own hints that he could take a transactional approach to diplomacy — by using, for example, Taiwan as a mere bargaining chip to extract concessions from China.

“There’s a massive effort afoot by the Chinese to try to get a handle on what’s going on and what to expect,” said Russel. The Chinese, he said, have dispatched scouting missions to both Washington and New York to try to see where Trump really stands. The president-elect’s pick for national security advisor, Michael Flynn, reportedly met with China’s top diplomat in New York recently.

Taiwan, which Beijing considers a rogue province, is perhaps the scariest flashpoint in the short term. Despite occasional hiccups — like a 1996 showdown that saw the dispatch of two U.S. aircraft carriers to the Taiwan strait — the “One-China” policy embraced in Washington since the Nixon administration has kept a lid on tensions getting out of hand.

Now, all bets are off. “I don’t want China dictating to me,” Trump told Fox News of his desire to scrap the decades-old policy.

That attitude apparently extends to the South China Sea, where Beijing has rankled Washington and many of its neighbors by claiming control over a passel of uninhabited reefs and atolls in international waters. Trump and Forbes, his potential pick to be secretary of the Navy, both call for a massive naval construction plan to put steel into U.S. military commitments in Asia. They also want to push back harder in the contentious South China Sea.

Last month, Navarro and Alex Gray, a former aide to Forbes who’s also now advising the Trump team, blasted the Obama administration for passivity in a dispute over a tiny shoal claimed by China and the Philippines. In 2012, a U.S.-brokered agreement got both sides to stand down. Then the Chinese ignored it and took over the shoal, sparking a landmark international legal case against China’s Pacific land grabs.

And Trump, a self-described billionaire real estate developer, has promised a much tougher economic line on Beijing, including branding China a currency manipulator and threatening tariffs on Chinese goods — either of which would be a shot at the jugular. On Wednesday, China appeared to send the United States a signal when it threatened to penalize General Motors over alleged price fixing.

Trump’s advisors say they will produce growth by inking bilateral trade pacts with countries like Japan, Taiwan, and Vietnam, who they say will welcome a more assertive Washington. But critics of Trump’s Asia policy say the president-elect is giving up the strongest card in America’s hand: the TPP, a massive free trade pact among 12 Pacific Rim countries. The deal, meant to anchor the United States to the globe’s motor of growth, was a centerpiece of the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia, and even lauded by military leaders as a mightier strategic weapon than an aircraft carrier.

But mugged by both Trump and Democratic rival Hillary Clinton and spurned by lawmakers, TPP sputtered in Congress. Trump has repeatedly called it “among the worst” trade deals in U.S. history and has vowed to pull out of the pact (still alive in Asia) on his first day in office — a move Chinese officials told FP they very much welcomed.

“Despite the claims to boost the naval presence, this would not compensate for loss of influence by pulling back on TPP, and leaves U.S. policy with only one leg,” said Anthony Saich, an Asia expert at Harvard.

Russel worries that a U.S. administration seen in the region as hot-tempered and unpredictable will not only unhelpfully rattle leaders in China, but make it harder to work with partners and allies from Vietnam to South Korea. Many of those countries have deepened defense ties in recent years with Washington, driven in part by fears of an increasingly assertive China.

“‘Who gets trampled when elephants fight?’ is a famous East Asian aphorism,” said Russel.

“If there were instead a very confrontational approach,” he said, “some of the other Asian nations would ask themselves ‘Whoa, over the last few years we have increased access to the U.S. military. But does that mean that now we’re going to be a stepping stone for a military threat from the U.S. against China?’”