The Certainty of Uncertainty in U.S.-China Relations

I wrote the following essay, “The Certainty of Uncertainty: U.S.-China Relations in 2017,” for an ISSF Policy Roundtable on “U.S.-China Relations and the Trump Administration.”  Other contributors include Dingding Chen, Mira Rapp-Hooper, Essay by Joseph Siracusa, Toshi Yoshihara and Zhu Feng.


The Certainty of Uncertainty: U.S.-China Relations in 2017

It is probably impossible to predict how U.S.-China relations will unfold under the Trump administration. Almost one hundred days into the new presidency, the national security apparatus remains largely unstaffed, apart from the secretaries of state and defense along with a handful of officials in the National Security Council. The administration has been unable to conduct policy reviews of many issues, especially the overall approach to Asia, including China. Even if such a review had been conducted, the administration lacks the middle-level managers to execute a region-wide policy.

The issues over which a crisis between the United States and China could erupt are easy enough to identify. The most immediate and pressing concern is North Korea and the acceleration of its of nuclear and missile programs. The other issues all involve disputes featuring Chinese sovereignty or territorial claims. In the East China Sea, China disputes the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands, which Japan also claims. Although the United States does not acknowledge Japan’s sovereignty over these rocks, it does recognize them as territories under the administration of Japan and thus covered by Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan mutual defense treaty. A crisis between China and Japan over the Senkakus would almost certainly trigger the treaty and involve the United States.

Across the Taiwan Strait, the election of Tsai Ying-wen as President of Taiwan has renewed concerns on the mainland about the island’s drift toward independence, challenging national unification and one of Beijing’s explicit core interests. Taiwan is not a formal ally of the United States, but Washington is closely involved in its defense through the commitments in the Taiwan Relations Act. A crisis across the Strait would quite likely result in the involvement of the United States

In the South China Sea, China disputes two archipelagos, the Paracels and Spratlys, with several other states. Vietnam challenges China’s claim over the Paracels; Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei challenge its claim over the Spratlys. China also claims maritime jurisdiction and historic rights over much of the waters in the South China Sea (presumably, though not explicitly, enclosed by the ‘nine-dashed’ line that appears on most Chinese maps). Only one of the other claimants to the Spratlys, the Philippines, is a treaty ally, but the United States has identified a vital interest in freedom of navigation through these waters.

These issues alone are cause for concern. But they are unfolding against a dramatic change in the balance of power created by the rise of China. China is not only the second largest economy in the world, but it is also the dominant economy in the region, more than twice the size of Japan, whom it surpassed in 2010. The changing balance of power elevates the stakes in the potential conflicts described above. For the United States and many in the region, China’s assertiveness over Taiwan or in its sovereignty disputes is viewed as a litmus test for how China as a dominant power might behave. For China, however, resistance in what it views as long-standing historical disputes reflects a rejection of its rise. China is more able than ever to defend its interests in these disputes, a situation which triggers broader concerns about order in the region – a volatile mix.

Enter President Donald Trump. During the transition, Trump appeared willing to challenge China more forcefully on many of these issues. When he spoke over the telephone with President Tsai, he questioned whether his administration would abide by the ‘One China’ policy, which has served as the framework for diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic for more than forty years. Following criticism of his phone call, he doubled-down, questioning explicitly whether the policy was worth continuing. Likewise, he scolded China over the South China Sea. All of this before inauguration.

Since then, Trump has appeared to moderate his stance. In a phone call with President Xi Jinping on early February, Trump indicated he would support the ‘One China” policy. “At the request of President Xi,” he was reported to have “agreed…to honor our ‘One China’ policy.”[4] In the South China Sea, the United States has maintained an active naval presence, but has not yet conducted any Freedom of Navigation Operations to challenge China’s excessive maritime claims. In Beijing in March, Trump’s Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, even repeated a phrase associated with China’s desire to build a “new type great power relationship” that is seen as a Chinese effort to gain U.S. acquiesce on its core interests, especially Taiwan.[5]

After the summit at the Mar-a-Largo golf club in Florida, many pundits must have been surprised. Trump did not offer a ‘grand bargain’ to Xi, and Xi did not bring a treasure chest of pledged investments. Instead, in their dinner and then working lunch, the two leaders agreed to create a new framework for issue-specific dialogues to replace the unwieldy Security & Economic Dialogue. This was another positive development, reflecting the start of an effort to build a working relationship for the many issues that the two sides need to address. The need to take action on North Korea may have also overshadowed Trump’s desire to press China on specific issues, especially trade, given the prevailing view that only Beijing has sufficient leverage over Pyongyang to compel it to abandon or at least freeze its nuclear and missile programs.

All along, China has been remarkably restrained. To be sure, Trump’s election was unexpected in Beijing. China had forged few ties with the campaign and finally found a channel through Jared Kushner, which paved the way for the February phone call and April summit. Observing Trump’s more general impetuousness, Beijing likely concluded that maintaining stability in the bilateral relationship was paramount. Trump would not be given a reason to lash out at Beijing. More generally, with the 19th Party Congress convening sometime in the fall of 2017 to select new members of the leading bodies of the Chinese Communist Party, the Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee, Beijing prizes stability above all else, at home and abroad.

So far, so good. Yet can this nascent trajectory of cooperation last? Trump has shown that talk is cheap. China has little reason to rely on his word alone and will watch U.S. actions with great care. As quickly as Trump reversed many of his positions on China during the campaign, he may switch back. Because it is an election year in China, the leadership in Beijing is extra sensitive to perceived threats from abroad and will view them as an effort to exploit China’s desire for stability. Trump could easily pose such a threat to China, unraveling the progress that has been achieved since the inauguration. And many opportunities for a crisis to occur are present.