Trump 100: A New Approach Towards Beijing

By Associate Professor Jian Zhang

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with Chinese President Xi Jinping

Contrary to widespread concerns about a troubled Sino-American relationship, Beijing and Washington DC have demonstrated remarkable pragmatism in managing their differences during Trump’s first 100 days. President Trump might ironically find in Beijing an unexpected partner for his ‘American First’ agenda.

When Donald Trump was elected as the 45th president of the United States late last year, many observers of Sino-American relations expected radical changes in Washington’s China policy. Trump’s persistently strident China-bashing rhetoric during the election campaign, and his controversial questioning of the United States’ long-standing One China policy shortly after his election victory, caused widespread concern that the bilateral relationship would be on a dangerous collision course under the new administration.

Approaching 100 days into his presidency, however, Trump’s tone on China has changed dramatically. The relationship with Beijing has not only remained largely stable, but even demonstrated a degree of warmth unseen in recent years. The warming relationship is in part a result of the Mar-a-Lago summit between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping that was held earlier this month. During the meeting, Trump not only described the bilateral relationship as “outstanding”, he also claimed that he and Xi developed a personal friendship. His subsequent decision not to label China a currency manipulator, one of the sharpest reversals of his presidency, eased widespread fears about a costly trade war between the world’s two largest economies.

In Beijing, a sense of relief, if not triumphalism, is clearly on display. In an exclusive media interview on the Xi-Trump summit, China’s Ambassador to US Cui Tiankai hailed the summit as a “great success”, opening a new page in the bilateral relationship. China’s former Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs, He Yafei, even referred to the meeting as the “summit of the century”, claiming that it injected much-needed certainty into the bilateral relationship.

But what kind of leader?

Despite the celebratory tone of Chinese officials, Beijing’s America-watchers are still debating the nature of Trump’s China policy and the implications for future Sino-American relations. For many Chinese analysts, the recent about-face in Trump’s attitudes towards China is not entirely surprising. Rather, it reflects a recurring feature of the bilateral relationship during US election cycles.

It has long been noted by Chinese America-watchers that in every US presidential election since the end of the Cold War, presidential candidates have employed China-bashing rhetoric during their campaign but later adopted more pragmatic and conciliatory policies once elected. The twists and turns in the bilateral relationship under Trump are thus unexceptional. Indeed, a Chinese commentator even complained that US presidential elections have become routine “roadblocks” to the development of better Sino-American relations, disrupting the relationship each time a power transition occurs in Washington.

Trump’s lack of political and diplomatic experience and his unpredictable personality created additional uncertainties. Nevertheless, a widely-held view in China has been that, like his predecessors and regardless of his campaign rhetoric, Trump would adopt a more pragmatic policy towards China once he gained an understanding of the complicated nature of the relationship. It is therefore unsurprising to see commentary in the Global Times describing Trump as a “resolute leader who is willing to learn and adapt” following his reversal on Chinese currency manipulation.

Some other Chinese analysts, however, are less sanguine. Rather than Trump’s lack of experience, they see his unique personality as a self-proclaimed master dealmaker driving his provocative rhetoric against China. In this view, both Trump’s early tough talk and later conciliatory posture are part of his bargaining tactics designed to extract maximum concessions from China. Given that creating uncertainty is one of Trump’s favourite tactics, Sino-American relations could become unusually volatile.

Still others argue that Trump’s transactional approach to foreign policy is not necessarily a bad thing for the bilateral relationship. Seeking a deal, Trump will be more likely to adopt a pragmatic and flexible approach. Trump’s preoccupation with economic matters and lack of ideology will reduce pressure on politically sensitive issues such as human rights, democracy and Tibet, which have long been points of friction.

An unexpected partner?

Despite these differing assessments, a growing sense of confidence can be detected in Beijing regarding its capacity to manage the relationship with Trump, especially on trade issues. This confidence is based on several factors. Firstly, most Chinese analysts and policymakers firmly believe that the extensive interdependency of the Chinese and American economies means neither Beijing nor Washington can afford to damage the relationship fundamentally. Therefore an outright confrontation on trade and other issues is unlikely.

Secondly, for many Chinese analysts, China’s economic strength is changing the balance of economic power between the two countries. While the US remains the stronger economy, China is now in a sufficiently strong position to withstand a trade war should it occur. Thirdly, while many countries are concerned by Trump’s ‘American First’ agenda, which may come at the cost of its trade partners through protectionist measures, Chinese policymakers and analysts see great opportunities for bilateral economic cooperation. There is a strong view that China has much to offer to the Trump’s ‘American First’ agenda. He Yafei argues that “’America First’ does not necessarily mean ‘China Last’.” China, after all, could assist Trump’s plan to construct and upgrade American infrastructure by providing financial capital and equipment.

Given Trump’s myriad domestic and foreign policy challenges, he may well find Beijing to be an unexpectedly useful and willing partner to ‘Make America Great Again’, at least for now.

Associate Professor Jian Zhang is the deputy head of the School of Humanities & Social Sciences, UNSW Canberra at the Australian Defence Force Academy.

Published April 27, 2017


Originally published at www.internationalaffairs.org.au.