Trump and Xi Need a Timeout

A mutually agreed-upon diplomatic break would allow both leaders to focus on making their countries great again.


Donald Trump considers himself America’s foremost dealmaker. And there’s no bigger deal he could make at the outset of his administration, for the world’s sake and his own, than a bargain with Chinese leader Xi Jinping that would prevent a head-on collision between the two superpowers. If Trump is wise, he will recognize that Xi would be just as interested in such a deal.

Trump and Xi are in the same situation — 2017 is a year of power transition for both leaders, which is why they have an interest in focusing on domestic, rather than international, issues. Trump is undoubtedly aware that, as of Jan. 20, the American public will hold him responsible for his repeated promises to make their country great again. He may be less aware that, in the fall of 2017 China will hold the 19th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, a very special and sensitive time in Chinese politics. The Communist Party convenes its national congress every five years to solidify leadership changes at the top levels. A majority of the Politburo Standing Committee is expected to retire at this incoming congress. Xi’s priority this year is to ensure the success of the Congress and use it to consolidate his power base as China’s core leader.

Historically, the Party Congress has also been a time of heightened domestic nationalism — and thus a time when Beijing made unusually tough responses to external incidents to appease the public. The most recent example was China’s furious reaction to the Japanese central government’s purchase of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands during the last Party Congress in 2012. The Sino-Japanese relationship has not recovered from that crisis.

Given this context, Trump and Xi have a strong mutual interest in staying out of each other’s way. If they can simply make a deal to preserve the status quo, they can focus on their domestic priorities first. The deal should be a detente for one year — that in 2017, Trump and Xi will try to preserve the status quo and freeze any potential disputes between the two sides, including North Korea, Taiwan, and the South China Sea. Both sides would not take any initiative that actively changes current diplomatic protocols or long-term agreements.

A one-year detente does not mean Trump and Xi need to agree on every issue, but rather avoid doing something that could escalate disputes and shake up the current state of affairs. For example, as part of the status quo, American ships might still conduct their regular South China Sea patrols, and the new administration could continue to press Beijing on currency and trade issues.

Eventually, Trump should — one hopes — realize that the trade deficit with China isn’t caused by currency manipulation but a variety of other factors, including Washington’s high-technology export controls directed at China. Starting a trade war would only bring overwhelming economic calamities to both countries and the global economy. If Trump eschews a deal for outright economic assault, it would be a terrible beginning for his term.

This deal is a feasible one. There aren’t any ongoing crises or urgent issues that would pit the two countries against each other. There are concerns in the United States and China over North Korea’s advancing nuclear technology, and Trump seems to recognize that a status quo in this region is better than an immature intervention and that a real breakthrough would need Chinese cooperation. In the South China Sea, the temperature has already been significantly dropping since the arbitration ruling in the case brought against it by the Philippines was announced in July 2016. Even though China’s initial reaction to the verdict was pretty furious — on paper — it has been taking a much more restrained and conciliatory approach, especially after the election of the vehemently anti-American Rodrigo Duterte. And until the phone call, Taiwan was not an immediate concern and relations have been relatively peaceful for the past decade. It would be unwise and imprudent to reopen this wound and make it a crisis.

Taiwan is not a bargaining chip. The history of U.S.-China relations has repeatedly proven that this is a dangerous and unpredictable game to play, one that has been very costly for both sides in recent decades. The 1995-96 Taiwan Strait Crisis was one example of how explosive the issue can be. The Clinton administration’s 1995 decision to issue a visa to then-Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui to visit Cornell University, his alma mater, ignited a major crisis. China responded with three large-scale military exercises and missile tests near Taiwan, and the United States sent two aircraft carrier battle groups to the Taiwan Strait in March 1996.

The danger of the Taiwan question cannot be fully understood only through geopolitical calculations; for China, it is related to nationalism and national identity. It is basically a non-negotiable issue to the Chinese. To play the “Taiwan card” to pressure China to back down in the South and East China Sea, as suggested by John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, will have precisely the opposite of the intended effect. This kind of suggestion can only come from people — whether they call themselves China experts or not — who don’t appreciate history or reality.

Even just one year of detente could allow both leaders to deal with their domestic troubles first, rather than force them to fight on two different fronts. Making such a deal in the beginning of his term would help Trump concentrate on his domestic problems and more urgent international troubles, such as the Islamic State and Syria. Trump will require China’s tacit cooperation on many of these matters, which is why he should ensure that Beijing doesn’t take a confrontational and hostile approach.

Any transition of power is always unstable and perilous. Even small accidents could pose tremendous challenges to an unprepared new administration. A recent example was the EP-3 spy plane incident that occurred on April 1, 2001, shortly after George W. Bush transitioned into the White House.

A tragic accident quickly escalated into a serious crisis and a game of chicken. Bush’s tough words in response to China’s initial request were considered by Chinese leaders as a loss of face in front of their domestic audiences and therefore closed off the initial diplomatic communication between the two governments. One important reason for the escalation was that the Bush administration was so new that the president had yet to put his China team in place, and hadn’t appointed a senior director of Asian affairs at the White House. Bush therefore did not have any China experts to advise him when the accident happened. A one-year detente would allow time for the Trump administration, many of whom lack government experience, to grow familiar with their new responsibilities.

Trump needs a solid China team if he is going to strike such a deal. His most recent nomination of Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad as the new ambassador to China is a good pick. Trump probably knows that the Chinese like to make deals with their “old friends,” but he will need real China experts in his administration. It seems as if the current names taking positions as advisors on East Asia and China, such as Michael Pillsbury and Peter Navarro, have strong opinions on China. But mainstream China experts are concerned about whether they can provide the new president with objective and rational assessments. China has been changing very quickly over the past five years, and it is vital for Trump to find people who have been taking a close day-to-day watch of China.

A one-year detente would have many advantages for both sides. It would avoid an exceedingly risky game of chicken at the beginning of Trump’s new term and allow both Trump and Xi to be better prepared for more serious U.S.-China negations in the future. Diplomacy is the art and science of handling complicated situations with wisdom and sophistication. The U.S.-China relationship — the most important bilateral relationship for both countries — requires a particularly high level of tact and prudence, and Trump and Xi would be wise to give themselves the time and space to acquire just that.

Photo credit: Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustration

Zheng Wang is the Director of the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies and an Associate Professor in the School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University in New Jersey.

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