In a little over a month since Donald Trump’s stunning victory in the presidential election, the president-elect has already, as he promised during the campaign, adopted a new thinking on China, most notably with his highly controversial remarks on the United States’ “one China” policy. It all started with a seemingly harmless “courtesy call” from Taiwan’s leader Tsai Ing-wen and developed into a mini-crisis in U.S.-China relations after Trump doubled down by threatening to change a decades-long U.S. stance in the form of the “one China” policy.
All these unpredictable moves have seriously worried analysts in both countries as many prominent scholars have come out criticizing Trump’s dangerous gambit. As the two most powerful economies in the world today, such a rocky start for U.S.-China relations certainly will not benefit anyone, including the world. Therefore, it is imperative for Trump to pay serious attention to the following issues if he still hopes for a stable and mature U.S.-China relationship.
First, Trump must focus on the long-term side of U.S.-China relations. The U.S. democratic system, with its presidential election every four years and other elections in between, unfortunately pushes its leaders to focus on short-term gains rather than long-term national benefits. Trump is under tremendous pressures to deliver his campaign promises quickly; to “make America great again.” Given his narrow victory in the presidential election (winning the electoral vote, but losing the popular vote), it is understandable that he might want to score points on the economy first. As a result, China becomes the target. But this thinking is dangerous, as the United States and China are engaged in long-term competition and cooperation. In the long run, both powers will benefit so long as they are patient in resolving their differences while making an effort toward pursuing common interests. Any short term policies by Trump that antagonize China would only make America worse off and definitely not “great again.”
Second, Trump must learn more about the history of U.S.-China relations. Trump is known for regarding himself as a smarter than everyone else and is not very interested in learning or acquiring knowledge. Despite his bragging about having read many books on China, his recent behavior and remarks demonstrate the opposite. There are already too many biases and misunderstandings between the United States and China due to a variety of reasons, with one of them being the complicated history of their relationship. A new book by veteran journalist John Pomfret, titled The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom, would be a good start as it details the two century love-hate relationship between the two powers.
Third, Trump must develop a win-win economic relationship with China. Given Trump’s campaign promises and the dire working class situation in the United States, it is very likely that he will initiate trade and currency wars against China, with the hope of restoring the U.S. economy and creating additional jobs at home. While such thinking is tempting, it is imperative for Trump to learn and understand the economic logic behind U.S. economic engagement with China. The main reason why manufacturing jobs have disappeared in the United States is not because of globalization, as Trump seems to argue, but because of technological developments such as automation. China can help the United States create more jobs at home by encouraging more Chinese investment into the U.S. and reduce the U.S. trade deficit by importing more U.S. goods, but a trade or currency war would only anger China, with possible economic retaliation to follow. A low-key dialogue with the Chinese government would produce more effective results, unless Trump is only interested in appealing to populist voices at home.
Finally, to achieve a stable and mature U.S.-China relationship, Trump needs to be more patient with China — though this may prove especially difficult for a 70-year-old man whose temperament might be a issue (and his Twitter account doesn’t help either). It might be difficult for Trump himself to demonstrate self-control when tensions become high in bilateral relations, but he could delegate to his closer aides, such as the incoming secretary of state and others, and have them conduct various dialogues with China. “Saving face” is important in China culturally and for the United States as well to some degree. If, unfortunately, a crisis were to break out between the United States and China, Trump should be very careful not to let his emotions take control, which would only make things worse.
Above all, Trump needs to focus on his domestic agendas and not stir up troubles abroad, especially with an important economic partner like China. A stable and mature strategic relationship with China is one fundamental fact that may help realize Trump’s agenda to “make America great again.” And for China, good ties with the U.S. will also help “make China great again.”