Trump and China: State of Flux

The Trump Administration has delivered a series of confused messages surrounding China. In an increasingly unstable region, JACK MOUNTFORD suggests that this approach is unlikely to improve the security situation.

Many observers fear that the Trump Administration’s confused approach to China may antagonise relations between the two powers (Image: Getty Images)

What happens when the most powerful military machine in human history is placed in the hands of a former reality television star? When the full apparatus of the world’s sole true superpower rests with an individual who holds no prior governmental or diplomatic experience, the result is unlikely to be lasting stability. In East Asia, for example, the fledgling presidency of Donald Trump has called into question many of the previously accepted geopolitical norms which governed interstate relations in the region. Various remarks made by Trump, as well as a number of his cabinet officials, have thrown the security situation in East Asia into a state of flux.

US policy regarding China has become increasingly erratic since Trump’s inauguration in January, and it has become increasingly apparent that the President and his administration possesses only a limited knowledge of the various legal, territorial and military issues currently facing the region. For American allies in East Asia, recent months have seen a series of unprecedented alterations in US policy. For the governments of South Korea and Japan in particular, this has prompted concern. In the case of South Korea, the mixed messages offered by the Trump administration have even precipitated debate over potential acquisition of nuclear weapons, in order to defend against North Korean aggression. The upheaval in the US approach to its East Asian allies will surely result in little more than deterioration of the security situation in the region at large.


Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested military action to prevent Chinese expansion at his confirmation hearing (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

In the case of US allies in East Asia, the confused approach of the Trump administration has prompted tumult and consternation. When regarding China, however, many observers fear that it could precipitate a genuine crisis between the two powers. The President has intermittently threatened to impose a forty-five percent tariff on Chinese goods imported into the United States; various figures have pointed out that such a policy would be economically disastrous for both parties. There is general concern that administration officials do not possess sufficient knowledge, both of China and of diplomacy altogether, in order to interact properly with the fast-growing regional power. In particular, some have pointed out that the administration’s major ‘expert’ on China, Peter Navarro, holds insufficient experience in order to properly advise on the conduct of diplomatic and economic relations.

Beyond economic concerns, however, there is widespread concern amongst observers that the various provocative remarks delivered, both by the President and by administration officials, could risk escalating into military confrontation. During his confirmation hearing, now-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made the unprecedented claim that the US could act militarily in order to block Chinese access to contested islands in the South China Sea. When questioned, Tillerson stated:

“We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed”.

Tillerson’s remarks represent a break with US policy beginning in the 1990s. Officially, the United States has refused to side with any particular party in the various maritime disputes which are ongoing in the area, but has at various points condemned the seizure and reclamation of numerous disputed islands by China. Whilst these reclamation-efforts clearly represent a violation of international maritime laws, the antagonistic statements offered by the Trump administration are unlikely to encourage reconciliation on the part of Beijing. Indeed, various Chinese media outlets have produced bombastic threats regarding the potential consequences of US military action in the region. However, there are serious concerns that Trump’s general temperament renders him unfit to oversee any delicate situations. Given his previous interactions with staunch US allies including Australia, there are grave concerns surrounding the President’s approach to a potential military adversary such as China.

Merely one-hundred days into his Presidency, Trump has already witnessed the provocative statements of his administration towards China backfire. The controversial phone call held with the Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, which called into question the long-established ‘One China’ policy, resulted just weeks later in Trump reneging his position during a phone-call with Chinese Premier Xi Jingping. If the United States under Trump comes to act as a ‘Paper Tiger’, making threats that it fails to act upon, then the result may be further Chinese aggression in the region. This will only increase the risk of military confrontation between the US and China, further destabilising an already fragile region.

The ambiguous approach of the Trump administration to nations of all types in East Asia has left the region in a state of flux. Allied and (potentially) hostile nations alike have been rendered perplexed and uncertain by the alternately contradictory and provocative statements made by the new President and administration officials. In the case of US allies including Japan and South Korea, the lack of direction has called into question policy norms that were previously considered unwavering. Regarding the US adversary China, however, the threatening and largely unfulfilled statements made by the administration may threaten to escalate into a genuine conflict between the two powers. It has long been argued that Donald Trump is woefully unqualified for such delicate diplomatic work as this. If put to the test, the new President’s lack of experience and aggressive temperament may threaten to further destabilise a presently fragile region into a a more serious conflict.