Sino-US ties can avoid Thucydides Trap

By Wang Jisi Source:Global Times Published: 2017/11/11 0:14:32

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT


US President Donald Trump's erratic statecraft, his incomplete working team and wavering China policy make it difficult to take a holistic view of his foreign policy.

The Trump administration's domestic policy is relatively clear, but its foreign policy is extremely ambiguous. So far, the US government has not issued any official document to detail its diplomatic strategy or national security policy. But the Trump administration's foreign strategy shows intent and is characterized by a number of tenets. 

First, Trump's foreign policy not only has to give way to domestic affairs, but also needs to regard American interests as the priority. If Trump wants to get re-elected, he needs to pay more attention to domestic affairs at certain times. 

Trump also values cost-effectiveness. He will slash the costs involved in international affairs as much as possible to ease the burden on the treasury, and his administration prefers bilateral cooperation to multilateralism, which he believes may restrict the US. 

In addition, Trump emphasizes pragmatic trading and downplays value-oriented diplomacy and human rights issues. One can be sure that the attention given to human rights issues in Trump's diplomatic strategy will be the lowest in recent decades. As Trump's personal values and religious beliefs are hard to fathom, and the US human rights situation is unfavorable, Trump is unlikely to highlight value-oriented diplomacy. 

Western democracy, including in the US, has seen a lot of problems in recent years. Besides, Trump's declining approval ratings since he assumed office, compounded by problems in American race relations, violent crimes and gun control, among others, leave him on shaky ground to effectively implement human rights diplomacy. 

Finally, Trump is likely to undertake overseas military adventures. He ordered the US military to launch 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles against Syria in April just as he met with Chinese President Xi Jinping at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. He launched the attack reportedly after being touched by photos of Syria towns suffering a gas attack and the sight of dead babies. 

In other words, Trump's decisions to act militarily may just be impulsive. He appoints former military officials to important positions in his national security team and values those who obey orders and act decisively, which may foreshadow future military adventures.

In recent years, Sino-US relations have entered a "new normal" with three main characteristics:

First, Sino-US cooperation and competition gain simultaneous strength with domestic affairs in both countries influencing diplomatic relations. 

Second, media outlets and the public pay more attention to Sino-US strategic rivalry than the positive side of bilateral ties. This milieu largely offsets the practical benefits of Sino-US cooperation and makes it more difficult to arrive at certain strategic conclusions.

Third, the strategic mindsets of the two powers contrast. The US, at least for now, does not see China as the biggest security threat, while the Chinese view the US as the biggest strategic threat. So, it is easy to imagine that the US has also seen China as the greatest strategic threat. The rise of China is one of the challenges the US faces, but the concern is not as imminent as other international crises countenanced by Washington.

This "new normal" that Sino-US relations have entered is not a breaking point; it rather constitutes the background of the Trump administration's China policy.

It appears that the US' strategy toward China may become more fragmented during Trump's time in office, which will be a new test for Beijing. The previous US administrations always tried to find a strategic position in Sino-US relations. But Trump's officials made it clear they will steer clear of any such propensity. 

The US has not yet detailed its China policy, but the Trump administration does have a policy toward Beijing. The US holds a fragmented and concrete China policy, which US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson calls "results-oriented." The fragmentation is a result of the administration's rhetoric and moves on China that contradict each other. 

The biggest problem affecting Sino-US relations is not economic and trade ties, but the North Korean nuclear issue. 

The Trump administration believes that China can impose sanctions like cutting off the fuel supply to North Korea to force it to change its policy. 

However, China's policy on North Korea is based on certain principles and considerations, and won't cater to US expectations. Under the current circumstances, the possibility of unilateral US military action against North Korea will increase. It's hard to predict when and how the US will "punish" North Korea, nevertheless, it is unrealistic to expect that the Trump administration will tolerate North Korea enlarging its nuclear arsenal. 

Compared with the North Korean nuclear issue, the importance of economic and trade relations cannot be underestimated. Trade won't lead to deterioration in Sino-US relations because economic ties between the two powers are highly interdependent. Economic and trade issues intertwine with the North Korean nuclear issue. 

Moreover, the Trump government attaches great importance to the issue of immigration. Many US administrative departments are concerned with illegal Chinese immigrants. 

American technological innovation is a force to reckon with in the world. The powerful civil society in the US contributes to stability in the country. The US economy is performing better. Hence, it's not correct to say the US is on the decline, but it is true the country has encountered one of the most serious political crises since it was founded.

To sum up, the North Korean nuclear issue will become the key factor affecting Sino-US relations. China needs to pay more attention to the issue and strengthen the crisis prevention and control mechanism. Due to diverging national interests and ideologies between the two powers, the development of their relations will face a bumpy road with mutual strategic suspicion, but they can avoid the Thucydides Trap - a serious long-term strategic confrontation.

What's more, the attitudes of Trump, his administration, and the US as a whole toward China are not the same concept. Only by making preparations for these aspects can China better cope with the changes in Sino-US relations.

The author is president of the Institute of International and Strategic Studies at Peking University. The article is an excerpt of his article published in

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

blog comments powered by Disqus