Long before there was a likelihood that Trump might someday become a president of the US, the billionaire businessman had already made statements about China in his tweets, in interviews, and in his bestselling book “Crippled America.” Now in the White House, President Trump’s rhetoric continues, uncensored and unfiltered.
He has accused the East Asian country of being a currency manipulator, an environmental polluter, of stealing jobs from the Americans, copying technology and militarization schemes. Whether the allegations are true or not, they will have residual effects on the ties between the two most powerful countries in the world.
But after Trump’s first face-to-face meeting as US President with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in April at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm beach, Fl, the president was singing a different tune. He cited “additional progress” on the ties between the two nations and described his relationship with Xi as “outstanding.” Trump brought along his national and economic advisers who reported positive developments that transpired in their talks. Two major talking points of the Mar-a-Lago meeting were the plan to denuclearize North Korea and to correct the trade imbalance between the two nations.
If things seemed bright and rosy in April, they quickly turned sour in June, after the United States felt that China had not done enough to chastise North Korea for continuing its missile tests. Trump also warned that the US will stop trade with other countries that have dealings with Pyongyang. China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang finds it unacceptable and unfair for the US to dictate sanctions on Beijing, which is North Korea’s closest ally.
As President Trump blows hot and cold on his views of China and its leader, what’s in store for the two superpowers?
Xi Jinping in his pictures looks like an affable, level-headed leader who is not prone to issuing heavily-loaded statements. On the domestic front, he enjoys widespread support of the Chinese people and has a tight grip on internal issues, such as corruption. China has enjoyed robust economic growth under Xi and it is now the second most powerful economy after the US.
Now that China has achieved economic prominence and military strength, it is less willing to bend to the US and has become bolder in pursuing its interests. It aims to be a global leader, and has capitalized on Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership by putting up its own Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) with 16 other countries, including US allies. It created the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in early 2016 to help developing countries in financing for infrastructure projects. The US sees the AIIB as a rival to the IMF and the World Bank, but through it, China is strengthening its economic influence with the 57 member countries.
China plans to become the Asian leader. It has claimed ownership of islands in the South China Sea and is currently embroiled in territorial disputes with Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan, and the Philippines. It did not recognize an international court’s ruling that the Spratly Islands belongs to the Philippines. It has built artificial reefs and added land area to existing islands, antagonizing further the other claimants. It has erected ports, air strips and military installations on these islands.
The United States, through Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, has warned China that the island building must stop and that its access to the islands will be prohibited. In October, a US Navy destroyer sailed near the contested Paracel Islands, claiming “freedom of navigation” operations in international waters. It is the fourth such operation in the ten months of Trump’s administration.
But Xi won’t budge. Through his Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying, he gave stern warnings to the US and vowed to protect the country’s sovereign territory. The United States is keen on protecting its political, economic and security interests in the Asia Pacific region, and ceding the islands to China will diminish its influence over other countries. But China sees it as intruding into Asian affairs, which it is not part of, and wants to keep it out.
Although a military attack from either side is unlikely to happen – Xi has a cooler head than his friend Kim Jong-un and Trump is not foolish enough to make the first move – there’s no telling what harm will come out of the US president’s reckless tweets. He should realize that America cannot isolate itself from the rest of the world and that bilateral trade relations with China is necessary. Good ties with China will have a great impact on the goal of denuclearization of North Korea, the global fight against terrorism, and economic and political interests of the US.
Trump should tone down his confrontational style and air statements that are congruent with what his top advisers are saying. Mattis and Tillerson favor a dialogue to maintain stable ties, support healthy competition and arrive at mutually satisfying solutions. The conflicting approaches send a confusing message to China, and hinders it from forming specific moves to secure a long-term healthy relationship.