The Experts Speak: What Will US-China Relations Look Like Under Trump?

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The Experts Speak: What Will US-China Relations Look Like Under Trump?

U.S. and Chinese experts offer their outlooks on the bilateral relationship in the coming year.

The Experts Speak: What Will US-China Relations Look Like Under Trump?

Chinese and U.S. flags along Pennsylvania Avenue near the U.S. Capitol in Washington during Chinese President Hu Jintao’s state visit (January 18, 2011).

Credit: REUTERS/Hyungwon Kang

On January 20, a new — and most unusual — U.S. president took office: Donald Trump. There’s little precedent to judge how Trump will govern, particularly in the realm of foreign policy, and some of his actions and rhetoric prior to assuming office have experts on both sides of the Pacific expecting a rough time for U.S.-China relations. To get a sense of what to expect, The Diplomat, in collaboration with the Chinese publication Dunjiao (formerly Consensus Net), interviewed Chinese and U.S. experts for their take on the future of the relationship. A Chinese translation is available via Dunjiao.

Da Wei, Head of U.S. Research Institute, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

The year 2017 will be a testing time for China-U.S. relations, and Trump’s presidency will likely create a great number of challenges. China should be mentally prepared for such difficulties and work out comprehensive contingency plans. When the circumstances call for it, China needs to have the courage to react and defend its interests and should not eschew paying the necessary price.

At the same time, China’s reaction should be taken at its own pace, rather than being passively stoked into action by Trump’s administration. More importantly, China needs to continue its reforms and deal with its own issues properly.

While 2017 will no doubt be a challenging year for China-U.S. relations, in the medium- and long-run, we may remember the words of Deng Xiaoping that China and the U.S. eventually will have to get along.

Robert Daly, Director, Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, The Wilson Center

“Sino-American relations” is a historic process whereby China learns to become a world power despite its instinct for insularity and the United States adjusts to Chinese power despite its desire for global preeminence. This dynamic has been building for decades and is unlikely to be altered by either Xi Jinping or Donald Trump.

Still, after January 20, both nations will be led, for the first time since the opening in 1979, by men who view the relationship in fundamentally adversarial terms (this is overt in Trump’s case, implicit in Xi’s). Their distrust reflects real strategic, economic, and ideological incompatibilities as well as the attitudes of their citizens; since 2014, a majority of Chinese and Americans have had a negative view of the other country. In China, there is a widespread belief that the U.S. is in irreversible decline and seeks to contain China, while a growing number of Americans, particularly in the foreign policy community, are convinced that China intends to replace the United States as the primary strategic actor, or hegemon, of Asia.

The U.S. and China are trying to navigate an inevitable competition amidst deep mutual suspicion and domestic fragility. This unpalatable brew could be rendered toxic by the addition of nationalism on either side or by the flaring of tensions in the Korean Peninsula, the Baltics, or the Middle East. Foreign affairs bureaucracies in Washington and Beijing cannot function normally under these circumstances. Roadmaps devised by both sides to encourage cooperation and defuse tensions are of limited use. As a result, the threat of wild card events pushing the United States and China toward conflict is greater than it has been at any time in nearly 40 years.

Wang Jisi, Professor, School of International Studies, Peking University

Deng Xiaoping once said that China and the U.S. eventually will have to get along. President Xi Jinping has also reiterated on several occasions that common interests between China and the U.S. outweigh their differences. Rather than tactful diplomatic words, these are strategic assessments based on objective circumstances.

Looking back at the more than two centuries of interaction between China and the U.S., the historical turning points have all occurred at times of dramatic political changes in China, such as the founding of New China in 1949 and the Reform and Opening-up in 1978, rather than during regime changes or political upheavals in the United States.

This will be President Trump’s first year in office, and his China policy will naturally be a matter of great interest. However, rather than speculating on the Trump administration’s intentions by focusing on each statement and move it makes, China should first deliberate on the kind of China-U.S. relations that are beneficial to its own long-term interests, and endeavor to clarify the ways in which such relations can be achieved.

Dean Cheng, research fellow on Chinese political and security affairs, The Heritage Foundation

The question of U.S.-China policy through 2020 has tended to focus on the potential policies of President-elect Donald Trump. This is not surprising, both because Trump was only just inaugurated, and because he has made a variety of comments that question some of the fundamental aspects of the U.S.-China relationship.

But as Americans, we tend to be excessively focused on what we do, how our actions may influence developments, when, as in any relationship, it takes two to tango.

In the case of U.S.-China relations through the end of the decade, a central issue will be what policies Xi Jinping pursues, recognizing that many of those policies will not be determined based on U.S.-China concerns, but domestic considerations, not only within China, but especially within the Politburo of the Communist Party of China (CPC).

This is especially salient, given the uncertainties surrounding the impending CPC 19th Party Congress. For reasons that remain unclear, Xi’s Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) from the 2012 18th Party Congress included a heavy representation of people who are expected to have to step down this year. Indeed, the only two people assured of staying on are Xi and Premier Li Keqiang. Under CPC rules, the remainder should have to retire, having reached the age of 68 in 2017. While there are rumors that Wang Qishan, closely associated with Xi, may stay on, the very fact that these are rumors highlights the uncertainty.

Chinese policies for the next five years will be affected by who emerges from the impending internal power struggle and debates. Will it be another group of people from the Xi cohort? Or will it be a group of younger leaders (in their late 50s), who would lend stability and continuity between the 19th and 20th Party Congress cohorts?

The answer is not obvious, since any younger leaders would owe their rise in large part to Xi — meaning Xi would have the ability to influence the composition (and therefore likely policies) of his successor. Not since Deng Xiaoping designated not only Jiang Zemin but also Hu Jintao to be the next Party and national heads would a Chinese leader have had such a hand in shaping his own succession. It is unclear that Xi’s counterparts and fellow collective leaders would want to cede so much power and influence to him.

On the other hand, elevating an older group of leaders would mean yet another round of high-level jockeying in 2021-2022, when this new cohort would have to step down. Not only would this mean yet more political infighting, but it would also signal that any economic reforms (no one is contemplating much in the way of political reforms in China) will probably be tepid, at best. Indeed, the past five years have seen few major efforts at market reform, despite nominal commitments at the 18th Party Congress in 2012 to sustaining the role of markets and other liberalizing platitudes.

Given the “lost decade” under Hu Jintao, when economic policies saw a renewed emphasis on central direction and suspended reforms, a further lack of reform for the next five years would mean nearly 20 years of state-centered policies. With China’s economy already slowing, continued lack of reform would have ugly implications for future growth prospects.

This in turn could begin to affect the resources available for national efforts, whether to improve national infrastructure, support Chinese efforts in outer space, or sustain the ongoing military modernization effort.

Further complicating U.S.-China relations is whether the new leadership cohort will be oriented toward foreign policy. Indeed, if the Chinese maintain their past pattern of not making the foreign minister a Politburo member, there may well be a period of adjustment as the new foreign minister and state councilor for foreign affairs determine their footing over their first year. After November 2017, Trump and the many new faces on his his foreign policy team may find themselves somewhat more experienced than their Chinese counterparts!

These elements suggest that the next few months will see intense Chinese debate and struggles over who will rise in the fall’s 19th Party Congress. This, in turn, may mean that Chinese attention to foreign affairs during the second hundred days of the Trump Administration will be attenuated, as Beijing’s focus shifts inward. This may present opportunities for the United States, if the incoming Trump Administration is prepared for them.

Xie Tao, Professor, Beijing Foreign Studies University 

Before Donald Trump was elected, a section of Chinese media and analysts thought that having Trump, rather than Hillary Clinton, in the White House would be better for the development of U.S.-China relations. But Trump’s words and deeds since being elected — whether spouting off on Twitter about U.S.-China relations and the Taiwan issue or nominating some figures with generally hardline positions on China to hold key jobs in the new Cabinet — doubtless felt like a slap in the face for those with such hopes.

Trump’s headstrong and repeated attacks have to a certain extent given momentum to a large “anti-Trump” movement. Public figures, one after another, have reminded or warned Trump not to play with fire when it comes to U.S.-China relations. As a result, the imagined Trump “honeymoon” is over before it began.

However, perhaps this is for the best – it provided an early rescue from wishful thinking. This sort of overly hopeful mindset, whether in China or the United States, poses a large danger to handling the bilateral relationship. Trump is still Trump; the only change has been to our own knowledge of and attitude toward him. Any actions that manufacture or puff up the image of a “fake friendship” between China and the United States will only mislead the peoples and decision-makers of the two countries and raise the political costs of future policy adjustments.

David J. Firestein, Perot Fellow and  Senior Vice President for the Strategic Trust-Building Initiative and Track 2 Diplomacy, EastWest Institute

Donald Trump is now the president of the United States. What will his presidency mean for U.S.-China relations? Given that Trump was elected with a mandate to “do things differently,” predictions of sharp, decisive changes in U.S. policy toward China – and growing difficulties in this most consequential bilateral relationship – abound. I think we will see both change and continuity – and probably more continuity than generally anticipated.

On trade, the Trump administration will likely adopt a tougher course in a number of ways, but I don’t think it will change the foundational architecture of the commercial relationship. Within the WTO framework, the United States will likely press China harder on trade cases, IPR infringement, and the exfiltration of commercially valuable proprietary data (aka, cyber-enabled economic espionage); and it may continue to make noise about China’s currency policy (read:  “manipulation,” in the view of some in the administration). But I don’t think the fundamental dynamics of the trade relationship will or can change quickly. If President Trump manages merely to slow the growth of the massive U.S. annual trade deficit with China – a deficit that reached a billion dollars a day in 2015 – that will be a laudable achievement in itself. This won’t be as easy a nut to crack as it might have seemed to some during the campaign.

But as with then-candidate Trump’s comments about China on the campaign trail, the new administration’s thinking and tonality on China is not entirely negative. On the positive side of the ledger, I think the Trump administration is going to seek to transform China from being “the problem” insofar as job loss is concerned to being a big part of the solution and a major source of job creation.  The way to do that is via facilitating and incentivizing large-scale Chinese investment in U.S. infrastructure, at least within the constraints of the strictures imposed by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS).

President Trump’s main specific goal as president is to “bring back” (or, in any case, create) millions of good-paying blue-collar jobs, particularly in the American heartland. The infrastructure sector, which figured unusually prominently in President Trump’s inaugural address, can be the key to that. And herein lies a real opportunity to transform the U.S.-China relationship, and U.S. perceptions thereof, in a fairly fundamental way. Specific ideas that I would encourage the Trump administration to consider are a possible bilateral infrastructure investment treaty (BIIT) with China; or more generally, a multilateral infrastructure investment liberalization agreement for the global economy (MIILAGE) and legislation aimed at streamlining foreign investment in U.S. infrastructure (e.g., a “Streamlining International Investment in U.S. Infrastructure Act,” or SIIUSIA).

I think the dynamics between the United States and China on such issues as Taiwan, the South China Sea, and North Korea will largely be recognizable to observers as we move into the coming months; I don’t anticipate major policy shifts or fundamentally different approaches or actions in these areas. (Anecdotal proof of that with respect to Taiwan, for example, is the fact that President-elect Trump and his team declined to meet Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen when she transited through the United States earlier this month.)

Many are pessimistic about the prospects for U.S.-China relations under President Trump; at a minimum, I am more “cautiously pessimistic.” But actually, I would go even further: I think there is genuine upside potential in this relationship that can be realized under the new U.S. president and his Chinese counterpart. I am hopeful that, for the sake of our two peoples and the world, that potential will be recognized – and realized.

Xiong Zhiyong, Professor, Department of Diplomacy, China Foreign Affairs University

As widely projected, China-U.S. relations will go through a period of uncertainty in 2017, and the two countries may even slide into hostility. Trump, a business executive with little prior experience in politics, is now president in the U.S., at a time when both countries are faced with various domestic and international challenges.

However, bilateral ties between China and the U.S. are not doomed to deteriorate into a crisis. It all depends on the action of those in power.

While it is still difficult to foresee how the Trump administration may act, China should nevertheless know what it needs to do:

1. Implement deep reforms to reduce domestic pressure

2. While not giving in on principles, be flexible and maintain good relations with neighboring countries to reduce international pressure

3. Watch the policies and actions of the new U.S. administration with a cool head and avoid making rash decisions

4. Take into account the fact that most of Trump’s team are not mainstream politicians and have little knowledge of China; some of them also have their own political motives. Since the new U.S. administration has few connections with China, the primary task of the Chinese government is to establish communication channels with their U.S. counterparts.

5. Make contingency plans in areas of potential conflicts.

Zhu Jun, Professor, School of International Studies, Peking University

The start of the new year is rarely uneventful. With Trump in the White House, China and the U.S. will once again venture into uncharted waters.

A few years ago, I suggested that relations between China and the U.S. had become interdependent and their competition would continue to intensify. Competition is now the defining feature of China-U.S. relations, the main area of contention being the gradual adjustment of their relative positions in the Asia-Pacific region. The course of events so far indicates that the scope of this competition has been expanding continuously. However, “competition” is not necessarily a negative word. Many factors can lead to competition between countries, and the results of competition are not always counterproductive.

One deep cause for the pessimism shared by many observers is the fact that increasing competition between China and the U.S. has deepened their mutual strategic suspicion. Moreover, with the media motivated by commercial interests stoking up populism and nationalism, the two countries now lack the proper political climate to deal with the impact of a potential crisis.

Historically, both mutual strategic trust and mutual strategic suspicion between China and the U.S. have been the results of profound and valuable thinking, and should not be reduced to positions on security issues only. Fundamentally, this is a matter of how the two countries understand and assess the direction the other country is taking.

China and the U.S. need to be cautious and act within the boundary of prudence. We hope the interdependence between the two countries can withstand the challenges of this precarious time.