The conventional wisdom on U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s China policy is that his preferred transactional approach, aimed at making deals with China, will not work. The reason behind this judgment is that the fundamental differences between the United States and China are structural; a status quo United States and a rising, revisionist China have divergent interests. The logic continues that since conflict is deeply embedded in the structure of the international system, any transactions between the two will have to be superficial, cosmetic, and will ultimately be unable to change the profound distrust that exists between them, allowing them to overcome the conflict of their national interests. In other words, these transactions will hit a wall sooner or later, because the national interests of either the United States or China are not negotiable.
Trump’s original hardline approach to China had raised major criticisms from the policy community, which seem to have helped shift his policy back to a more traditional track. His attempt to adapt the U.S. “one China” policy was seen by some as aimed at using Taiwan as a bargaining chip to seek concessions from China on other key fronts. Yet upon the realization of the infeasibility of this approach with either mainland China or Taiwan, Trump returned to a more traditional U.S. policy on Taiwan by finally affirming the one China policy in February 2017.
Similarly, Trump had made rather inflammatory comments about China on trade during his presidential campaign, to the extent that some were worried about a trade war if he indeed decided to label China a currency manipulator and even impose a 45 percent tariff on Chinese imports. Neither of these happened, which confirmed the earlier Chinese speculation that Trump is essentially a pragmatic and rational businessman; someone that China can work with.
Several key developments on the China policy front since Trump’s inauguration suggest a positive turn in bilateral relations compared to the days of the Obama administration. The Mar-a-Lago summit in early April worked rather well to build personal chemistry between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Their personalities seemed to click. In comparison, the first meeting between then-Vice-President Xi and President Barack Obama in November 2009 did not really create a good foundation for such chemistry due to their very different personal styles.