Photo: Courtesy of Green
Since taking office in January, US President Donald Trump's Asia-Pacific policy has been closely watched by China and other Asia-Pacific countries given the rising uncertainties in the Korean Peninsula and the South China Sea. What will his strategy in the Asia-Pacific region look like? And how would China and the US approach these issues? Global Times (GT) reporter Zhou Jiaxin talked to Michael J. Green (Green), senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former senior director for Asia at the US National Security Council from 2001 to 2005, about these topics.
GT: Given Trump's public statements about China, what kind of China policy will he employ?
Green: To understand the US' China policy, it is important to look beyond US-China relations.
In the postwar era, the first pillar of the US' Asia strategy was the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty where America created its alliance with Japan, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines and South Korea. That is a very basic, fundamental pillar of the US strategy in Asia. Then in 1971, another important pillar complemented that, which was Nixon's visit to China.
Since 1972, every American president has been strongly committed to our alliances and a cooperative US-China relationship.
What's so confusing about Trump is that he attacked both. Trump's intention was to shock but also to try to get some negotiating leverage at the same time. He's learned already that won't work.
So he told Chinese President Xi Jinping on the phone that he will not change America's One China policy, and he told Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that he will stand strongly with the US security commitment to Japan. At least, Trump put back the two pillars of American strategy. What happens next is a bit uncertain.
Trump's strategy, as a businessman, is to have several competing powers around him. You might see some more trade deals, Taiwan arms sales and larger budgets for US navy and so forth. None of these would lead to a crisis but all of them will create a little bit tension with Beijing.
China will do what it has to do to counter these tactical moves. But we should keep an eye on the tasks of the next stage which is how to stabilize the relationship going forward.
GT: Support for the Obama administration's rebalancing policy has waned. What will be the future trajectory of this policy?
Green: The "rebalancing" to the Asia-Pacific is seen as a threat and a military containment of China by Beijing. But in the US and its ally countries, it is seen as not strong enough.
From an American perspective, when the Congress or experts looked at the "rebalancing," it is like a big box that said rebalance. Chinese looked at the box and said, "Oh my god, this is containment!" especially when Obama emphasized the military dimensions in a 2011 speech in Australia.
But, there's a pretty broad consensus that Clinton or Bush, Republicans and Democrats could have made more effort in "rebalancing" the Asia-Pacific. Trump will do that. The Congress has to decide. A lot of people said that Obama has a nice box but it was empty.
GT: What is Trump's stance on the South China Sea issue?
Green: The US military has conducted freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) since 1804. Basically, the US considers it to be either international waters or unclaimed in order to demonstrate that we will not change our navigation pattern. So the FONOPs are a way of saying, in fact, that we don't accept unilateral claims of sovereignty over key waters. I don't think the FONOPs are meant to put pressure on China. That's never what they intended for.
From China's perspective, its military facilities on these islands, increased presence and declaration of the Nansha Islands are China's way of implementing or supporting the claims it's always had.
It is also quite clear to me that the US is not going to change its efforts to reinforce the status quo.
The key question now is can we establish stable equilibrium and avoid all accidents.
There is going to be tension in the South China Sea for some years, but we need to put that tension in a box or manage it so that it doesn't define the whole US-China relationship.
GT: Trump has expanded the US military budget by nine percent and is planning on building more aircraft carriers. What is your take on this?
Green: The US military budget is much bigger than China's. We also have a global presence and global security responsibilities in the Middle East and Europe with NATO. That is their highest priority and that will cost money to build US-NATO conventional capabilities.
Those are the top two concerns, and then there is North Korea. There will be many military budgets for Asia and most of that will be related to North Korea, but certainly some US operations will cost money and require ships. That's something the US and China are doing in parallel.
The key thing is to recognize reality and our strategic objectives. In this area, there are some collisions, but it is something that we can manage. Our strategy in Asia since 1783 is based on a strong relationship with China.
GT: Trump said Washington will honor the One China policy. To what extent will the Taiwan question affect Sino-US relations under Trump?
Green: The US and China interpret the One China policy a little bit differently. The Chinese side thinks the Sino-US Three Joint Communiqués are treaties, whereas, the US side honors the communiqués but we don't consider it as treaties because it has never been verified by our Congress.
Within the US understanding of the One China policy, there could be arms sales to Taiwan, which the mainland won't be happy with. Trump will do more than what Obama did, and Beijing should think hard about how to act because exerting heavy pressure on Taiwan would create a backlash against the mainland.
GT: Beijing has protested against the US deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea. How important is it for Washington to pay attention to Beijing's concerns?
Green: Beijing has strongly opposed THAAD, maybe because of the concerns about military issues or domestic public opinions. But, it will not change the US' position. The South Koreans were split at first, but now there is more support for THAAD.
The US should listen to China's concerns and continue to have a dialogue, but no American president will remove a defensive shield like THAAD and expose our troops to North Korean missiles.
The US will appreciate China's cutting off coal and putting pressure on North Korea. We should work together. There are things the US can do, too. We were almost on the same side during the Six-Party Talks dealing with the Korean Peninsula problems.
The US should try very hard to understand China's concerns and vice versa. We haven't had a good US-China strategic dialogue in a long time. We should look at the whole relationship in which we will have areas of tension and also cooperation. President Xi is a strategic thinker. We can have that kind of dialogue if we try.