China-US relations need to find new balance

By Da Wei Source:Global Times Published: 2017/8/7 20:03:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

After the Cold War, as China gradually narrowed its gap with the US in overall national strength, its political and economic development deviated from US expectations in obvious ways.

When the US gradually realized that a rising China wouldn't become more like the US, but instead a challenger, its anxiety grew. The US has tended to deal with China in a head-on and tough manner. As a result, US strategy on China has turned increasingly negative, evolving from "engagement" to "engagement and caution" and later "engagement and counterbalance."

Meanwhile, the impetus for the development of China-US relations began to grow. The increasingly high interdependence on each other and close cooperation on global and regional affairs hindered the US impulse to subvert the relationship.

Sitting US President Donald Trump's eccentric personality and anti-establishment background make his domestic and foreign strategy unconventional in many aspects. But so far, he hasn't gone beyond the framework of US strategy on China that was shaped after the Cold War.

Trump's toughness on China during his presidential campaign is actually a reflection of how the US public and strategic circles view China. Democratic candidates and pro-establishment members of both Democratic and Republican parties may not agree with Trump on his rhetoric about China, but highly concur with him on getting tougher on China. Even Hillary Clinton would have been tough on China if she were elected into the White House in 2016.

After Trump took office, he turned cautious and moderate regarding China in his speeches and actions. For a period, he became positive, in particular after meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Mar-a-Lago resort in April. This has to be attributed to the stability brought by the strong inherent benefits to both sides in the China-US relationship. Given the reality, Trump seems to have gone through his learning curve faster than predicted.

With regard to China, what Trump prioritizes is the North Korean nuclear issue and US-China economic ties. These priorities were pivotal in both Barack Obama's policy and Hillary Clinton's campaign.

Moreover, ideology plays a lesser role in Trump's foreign policy. While criticizing China's political system and ideology, Trump never showed any intent to shape or influence where China goes. Given that US strategists are abandoning their attempts to shape and change China's strategic direction through engagement, changes brought by Trump don't contradict the evolution of America's China strategy.

Also, Trump views China-US relations by and large from the perspective of competition rather than from a global context. He has a strong disregard for the international system, and is suspicious of it. This accords with the tendency of Republican administrations since the end of the Cold War to conceptualize bilateral relations on the level of national competition.

All of this suggests that the Trump administration's China policy has had much continuity. His rhetoric is simply a personal touch, with a basis in decades of US strategy. The two countries need to accommodate each other.

Certainly Trump and his administration will work out a China policy that is different from the past, given their particular goals and the new stage that the China-US relationship has come to.

Mutually beneficial

Above all, the Trump administration may set its major goal in dealing with China as making sure both sides mutually benefit. This has become a catchphrase in US strategic and business circles since 2015. More and more Americans are complaining that they have suffered losses because of China's market access. Americans also complain the US is a much more open society than China.

What's noteworthy is the logic beneath. When China was viewed as a weaker country, an unequal relationship was acceptable to the US. Now that China is no longer a feeble country that can be easily shaped and influenced, the US is insisting that both sides mutually benefit from the relationship. This change shows a decrease in America's strategic confidence with China.

The Trump administration is apparently deal-driven in its work. Famous for writing The Art of the Deal, Trump is good at negotiation and sometimes compels his business rivals to make deals by disgraceful means. He holds that the US hasn't converted its huge capacity to economically contain China to its advantage. During his presidency, he likes to put different topics together rather than deal with them separately. For instance, he linked China-US economic ties with the one-China principle and North Korea's nuclear issue.

In dealing with China, Trump hasn't made many concessions. He mainly presses China with US strength. For instance, he said the US shouldn't be bound by the one-China policy, declared China the "grand champions" of currency manipulation, imposed high tariffs on China's exported products, and inflamed tensions around the Korean Peninsula. Then he used the threat of changing the status quo as a lever to pressure China. His negotiation tactic is to threaten that the US will modify its policy on these issues unless China makes concessions over other issues.

Unstable administration

The unstable administration of Trump is the biggest variable that will determine Trump's China strategy in the near to medium term. Trump has been slower than any of his predecessors in establishing his administration. Many posts are still vacant and there are fierce conflicts, as shown by the resignation of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

The political struggle within the administration will exert a major influence on Trump's domestic and foreign strategy. The internal competition will be carried out on three levels.

First is the conflict between advocates of the "America First" policy and of internationalism.

Second is the competition between the White House and other bureaucracies. Trump has highly relied on his team in decision-making, and the traditional bureaucracies, represented by the State Department, are facing the risk of being marginalized. But this won't last forever. When the bureaucratic divisions regain their influence, they may expand their grip by making trouble.

Third, the conflict between Trump's administration and the establishments of the Democratic and Republican parties will be the biggest uncertainty in Trump's presidency. The result of this conflict will to a great degree determine the maneuvering space of the Trump administration.

To sum up, the interactions between China and the US will decide on which strategy the relationship will be built - cooperation or confrontation. As of now, the US China strategy appears to be evolving from confrontation under the "America first" approach to major-power cooperation. But it remains to be seen whether the evolution is sustainable.

There is possibility that Trump's unconventional presidency may enable China-US relations to reach strategic stability. In dealing with China, Trump has always emphasized that the bilateral relationship must be taken in a historical context, and should work toward a strategically stable relationship over the medium and long term. But his efforts may meet obstacles created by the US political system, and tensions between the establishment and the Trump administration.

In general the US has taken a tough stand on China since the end of the Cold War, but the relationship between the two countries has become more balanced and equal. The relationship seems to be meeting more difficulties than ever. But it is essential for the two powers increasingly on equal footing to rebuild a stable relationship. When two countries embrace and accept each other as major powers, their relations will possibly reach a new stable state.

The author is director of the Institute of American Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations. The article is an excerpt of his article published in the journal of World Economic and Politics. Follow us on Twitter @GTopinion

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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