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Speculating on Sino-US ties in the Trump era

MR josseBy MR Josse
KATHMANDU: The likely course of Sino-American ties post Donald Trump’s inauguration as United States president on January 20, 2017 is perhaps the most discussed/speculated topic in international relations today. That’s hardly surprising given (a) that Sino-US ties are arguably the most important bilateral relationship in the world and (b) that Trump, in emerging as the unexpected winner of the 2016 American presidential sweepstakes, has demonstrated a disruptive penchant for bold, unexpected and even hotly controversial foreign/security policy positions/postures.
GIFTS FOR CHINA?
Former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer (projectsyndicate.org) argues credibly that “the only remaining questions now concerns how quickly US policy will change, and how radical those changes will be.” Referring to Trump’s announced plans to scupper the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which he believes is tantamount to a gift for China, “whether he realizes it or not”, Fischer thinks that Trump could conceivably hand China another strategic gift: “reducing US engagement in the South China Sea.”
Although Fischer cautions against making too many categorical predictions about what Trump would do once in office, he nevertheless envisages the possibility that, under Trump, the US could move towards “isolationist nationalism” as part of his overarching strategic goal of ‘Making America Great Again!’
Another set of interesting ideas/speculations emerges in American academic Ali Wyne’s write-up in The National Interest which largely focuses on the theme that China is poised to draw America’s allies into its strategic orbit in the Asia-Pacific region.
xi-vs-donaldThough he understandably refers to the flap caused by Trump’s breaking with decades of foreign policy tradition in talking directly to Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, he does not believe it will cause long-term damage. He focuses, instead, on the perception that recent developments in the region are “weakening the delicate balance that had helped circumscribe the strategic competition between the US and China in the Asia-Pacific,” nerve centre of the world order.
Hitherto, China’s neighbours had “postponed for as long as possible a wrenching choice between the two giants” – a reinvigorated US role and a resurgent China. Given that, in Asia, China has “steadily become the largest trading partner for Australia, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Malaysia, Myanmar, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam”, Wyne’s is convinced that “none of them can afford to participate in a US-led understanding that either opens with or morphs into containment” of China.
Echoing Fischer’s premonition on the impact of TPP’s demise, Wyne asserts that its end result would be that China would be “increasingly poised to advance a geo-economic strategy that draws America’s allies into its strategic orbit.” He thus believes that Trump’s task is to avoid the impulses of disengagement and containment and instead impel new members to an Asia-Pacific configuration that permits the US to balance competition and cooperation.”
TANGLING WITH CHINA
More enticing speculation has been offered by Oren Dorell in USA Today where he identifies four areas where Trump could tangle with China: Taiwan, South China Sea, North Korea and Trade.
Regarding Trump’s telephonic overture to Taiwan, Dorell thinks it is “too important for China’s leaders to ignore” since if Taiwan moves towards independence, so can Tibet and Xinjiang.” In his view, China could manifest displeasure in the economic sphere, anti-terrorism cooperation and with regard to the North Korean nuclear proliferation issue. Beijing could, of course, also ratchet up tension in the South China Sea to the detriment of US’s interest, by spurring an unwelcome hike in military and financial expenditure.
Given that China has built a series of fortifications in disputed South China Sea islands – but hasn’t claimed so – she could change her present position and compel the US to seek encounters with Chinese fighter jets housed in hardened hangers there. At the very least, China could raise the stakes vastly by forcing the US to decide whether it is worth her while in challenging China close to her shores – and not forgettingthat most of China’s neighbours have been slowly but surely coming around to the reality of Chinese power in that segment of the Asia-Pacific, not to talk of the benefits of trade and other economic associations with Beijing.
Although China has thus far signed on to international sanctions against North Korea, any serious setback to Sino-US relations could, in Dorell’s estimation, occasion Beijing “to walk away from them”. Or, even more drastically, “it could also increase military and economic aid and declare an end to talks designed to end North Korean nuclear proliferation – which is clearly one of the most portent security threats to the US, not to mention to Japan and South Korea, among others. If that were to happen, Dorell asks: “what would the US do?”
Thus far, Trump has sent both tough and friendly signals to Beijing. On the one hand, he has packed his trade team with veterans of the US steel industry’s ‘steel wars’ with China and, on the other, he has nominated Iowa governor Terry Branstad, who has a 30-year old friendship with Chinese President Xi Jinping, as his ambassador to China.
STRATEGIC PATIENCE
I would now like to refer to some acute observations made to CNN’s Richard Quest by former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, “an old friend of the Chinese people” fluent in mandarin. In brief, Rudd said that to his mind Chinese leaders are “trying to figure out Trump” and, in the meanwhile, they are pursuing a “policy of strategic restraint” refusing to take the bait on what Trump is saying now – before he moves into the White House.
In closing, it is not difficult to envisage two diametrically opposed possibilities: if Trump does not mess with Taiwan or other core areas of Chinese interest – Tibet, Xinjiang, South China Sea – and sticks mainly to America’s trade and related economic priorities vis-à-vis China, it would be a win-win situation. Otherwise, Sino-American relations, and the international order more generally, would be in for a tumultuous, unpredictable time.

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