The Telegraph, 6 April, 2017
Today sees the first day of a historic US-China summit in Mar-a-Lago, Florida, which will see two strongmen, Xi Jinping and Donald Trump sitting down together and thrashing out bilateral economic and security issues. Seen by many Washington insiders as premature, the summit with China seems to have come before President Trump has fully fleshed out his cabinet, and, some would say, before he has fleshed out his Asia policy. Whatever the case, the White House has indicated that North Korea, trade, and the South China Sea will be high on the agenda for the US side. For the man who talked of China over and over again on the campaign trail, a meeting with the Chinese president has been a long time in coming.
For his part, China’s President Xi Jinping has played China’s cards close to his chest. The China Daily, a state-owned newspaper, claimed the meeting was merely for the two leaders to “compare notes” and “help stabilize political relations” between the two. The ultimate aim being to avoiding what many academics call the “Thucydides Trap” in which an established power’s fear of a rising power leads to escalation and eventually war. Despite Trump’s fiery campaign rhetoric about China “raping” the US, manipulating its currency, and stealing American jobs, Beijing has muted its response to these charges, preferring to see him as a businessman, with whom they can make a deal.
Certainly, he presents a challenge. According to Fred Fleitz, a former Bush appointee, “China is coming here to try to figure Trump out.” In an age of twenty-four hour news, tweeting, and rapidly-changing policy positions, it is rare for political figures to defy interpretation.
So will the Chinese give him a deal? Some have argued that they will give him some sort of concession over North Korea. Not that Beijing genuinely believes US threats to consider “all options on the table”, i.e. military means, but they recognize serious signalling when they see it. They’ll also know that even rhetoric could on its own push the paranoid regime in Pyongyang into some new rash action. They may also recognize that Washington’s 20-year strategic patience has given way as the North’s missile range has crept towards the continental United States. Giving Trump a new tighter sanctions regime works because in the end nothing is given away. Such sanctions can always be watered down or circumnavigated later; trade is notoriously difficult to verify on the North-China border.
More importantly, the appearance of giving way on North Korea disarms Trump’s biggest gambit, which will be on trade and the economy, his key interest. The United States gave China most-favoured trading nation status decades ago, has invested trillions into China’s once-agrarian economy, and helped it into the World Trade Organization. According to Trump, the loss of American jobs, manufacturing, and intellectual property to China have been down to poor negotiation by past administrations. Peter Trubowitz, Director of the US Centre at the London School of Economics, believes that “Trump will want to have it both ways, signalling a deep concern with Chinese trading practices, but you won’t see him slapping a 45 per cent tariff on Chinese goods”. Pressure, he says, will come from Congress, which will seek to create a border adjustment tax – something that will deeply affect Chinese imports.
As for claims that Trump has no discernible policy on Asia, as I have written here, Peter Navarro, the head of Trump’s National Trade Council has sketched out a Reaganesque “peace through strength” approach toward China in his 2015 book Crouching Tiger: What China’s Militarism Means for the World. In he states that trade, and domestic reform of America’s infrastructure and tax policy will be the key means for the US to bolster its comprehensive power. This will help build the 350-ship navy that will deter Chinese adventurism. This indicates that the Trump administration sees the South China Sea as a critical strategic waterway, and will continue to contest Chinese attempts to control it.
The fact that Randall Schriver, protégé of Richard Armitage (a senior official during the Bush administration with long-standing ties to the region), is being vetted for the top Asia job in the State Department will relieve US allies in the region. With decades of experience of alliance policy in the region, Schriver also brings close ties to Taiwan with the job. While Schriver has yet to be accepted, one reading of his appointment is that he provides a steady hand with allies, while bolstering the status quo in the Taiwan Strait through deterrence.
Time will only tell whether the two states can avoid the Thucydides Trap.