Beijing, Washington partners, within limits

By Jin Canrong Source:Global Times Published: 2017/8/14 20:33:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

During the 2016 US presidential campaign, China was perhaps the most important topic of Donald Trump's speeches on diplomacy and the economy. Chinese media estimated that Trump talked about China as many as 235 times, making this bilateral relationship relevant as the international landscape changes.

All US presidents set American interests as their first priority.

Trump is blunter than the others. He believes that the US stands to lose in trade due to its huge trade deficit with China, and that China has not helped much in strategic issues.

His various remarks regarding China during his campaign show his commitment to reset trade, economic, military and political relations with China so that they will evolve to favor the US.

This reflects the long-term US supremacy over other countries. But as the strength gap between China and the US narrows, the potential conflict of interests between the two may rise. Trump will continue to push for a good bargain for his country, and how tensions will develop depends on China's approach.

In the past 45 years, China has managed its ties with the US with a good temper. Unlike Russia that adopts a tit-for-tat approach in dealing with US provocations, China always plays down US criticisms and works on bilateral relations in a down-to-earth manner.

In recent years, China has been developing its military and some Western scholars claimed China wants to seek "peace through strength," a famous phrase which has been used by many US presidents from Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump, suggesting that military power can help preserve peace. But under the different contexts of China and the US, this doctrine serves different purposes.

While the US always flexes its muscles through its alliance system to maintain dominance in the world, China holds that it will only resort to military means when its core interests are threatened. China is prone to realize peace through economic relations and multilateral cooperation.

Currently, both China and the US need to feel out the new policy that Trump is offering China. The US has seen China as a main rival since 2010 under the administration of Barack Obama. Obama's strategy of rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific was a major shift of US foreign policy.

Obama adopted a "four-track" approach to implement his strategy. Militarily, the US has planned to position 60 percent of its air and navy forces in the Asia-Pacific region by 2020. Economically, Obama pushed forward the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal together with Japan to encircle China.

At the same time, the US pursued "smart diplomacy" that aimed to drive a wedge between China and its neighboring countries, especially those with which China has maritime territorial disputes. The disputes began to emerge in the 1960s but were put under control by China and relevant stakeholders, but since 2010 the South China and East China Seas became flashpoints thanks to a US backstage role.

Meanwhile, then US secretary of state Hillary Clinton promoted "Internet diplomacy" to use technology in ways that would support democratic institutions advocated by the US.

When it comes to Trump, things are different. The US used to have three strategic focuses in the Eurasian continent, namely Europe, the Middle East and East Asia, yet Trump has not decided which should be his priority. In terms of the North Korean nuclear issue, the Obama administration adopted a "strategic patience" strategy, putting aside the issue while focusing on counterbalancing China. By contrast, Trump attaches immense importance to the nuclear issue, for which he must seek China's help. Although he will continue to deploy US air and navy forces to the Asia-Pacific region, Trump's strategic hostility toward China is not as high as it was in the Obama era.

But on the other side of the coin is that Trump may employ the rash diplomatic tactic of denouncing the one-China policy, which Obama was wise to avoid. This may lead to the deterioration of China-US relations.

Economically, Trump scrapped the TPP trade deal; instead, he has imposed pressure directly on China in trade talks. He is expected to direct the US trade representative to open a 301 investigation into China's alleged violation of US intellectual property rights, signaling a tougher trade stance on the part of the administration.

The "smart diplomacy" policy remains in place. The US is currying favor from Japan, India, Australia and Vietnam to form a quadrangle alliance to keep China in check. The US has realized that the relationship between China and the Philippines has been improving and it is difficult to sow dissent between China and ASEAN. On August 6, China and ASEAN adopted a negotiating framework for a code of conduct in the South China Sea. So Washington woos Tokyo and New Delhi to counterbalance Beijing in the region.

The US under pragmatic Trump does not favor any ideological tool, yet it does not like narratives from China either. China has proposed the concept of a new type of major power relations, yet the US only sees it as a "heart-warming slogan" that it neither accepts nor rejects.

The current China-US relationship is more like a partnership with limits. The two nations have many interests that have converged and manageable conflicts, and can cooperate on concrete global issues such as fighting terrorism and nuclear proliferation, but there will not be an alliance under the construct of international law.

The author is vice director of the School of International Studies at Renmin University of China. Follow us on Twitter @GTopinion

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

blog comments powered by Disqus