Taking sides in the heated ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea between China and other countries in the region is only the latest piece of Trump’s erratic stance on China. But is this part of a carefully calculated strategy or a blatant display of ignorance?
WASHINGTON — Upon his “surprise” victory in November, international leaders expressed mixed feelings over the realization that Donald Trump would serve as the next president of the United States.
While those countries strongly allied with the United States under Obama’s leadership largely expressed dismay and concern, those which had been victims of Obama-led antagonism largely celebrated Trump’s victory as a promise of a much-needed reset.
China was one of the few nations to express both sentiments – simultaneously conveying its overarching optimism of working with a new administration while also making plain its concerns over Trump’s campaign promises to change trade policies between the two nations. Overall, China seemed optimistic of what a Trump presidency could offer.
Yet, after his electoral victory and in the days since his inauguration on Jan. 20, Trump has tested Beijing’s limits via a series of foreign policy faux pas, some of which led Chinese media to chastise him for acting “as ignorant as a child” in terms of his understanding of international relations. These antagonistic measures, some of which have nearly eroded key foundational elements of Sino-American relations, have served to “muddy the waters,” as Dr. Shelley Rigger, a professor of Political Science at Davidson College and noted expert on East Asian politics, told MintPress News.
Rigger noted that Trump’s controversial actions — particularly his attempted subversion of the “One China” policy — essentially means that “the Chinese are going to be very cautious in how they move forward,” as the “Chinese government is not likely to trust Trump at all.”
China, Rigger said, is not “looking for trouble” and is likely to strike a cautious tone with the Trump administration, but some within the Trump administration have suggested that a more aggressive approach is necessary. For example, Steve Bannon, Trump’s controversial chief strategist, noted last year that there “was no doubt” that the United States would go to war with China at some point in the next decade.
Though cooler heads are likely to prevail, Trump’s campaign trail comments regarding China as well as his recent actions suggest that anything is possible — especially given that Trump’s most predictable quality is, in fact, his unpredictability.
‘We have a lot of power with China’
On the campaign trail, in his characteristically direct and unfiltered manner, Trump made several controversial comments regarding China’s economic relationship with the United States, even going so far as to liken Chinese trade policy to rape.
“We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country, and that’s what we’re doing,” Trump said at a campaign rally in Indiana in May. “We’re going to turn it around, and we have the cards, don’t forget it. We have a lot of power with China.”
He further accused China of being a “currency manipulator” and promised to put “an end to China’s illegal export subsidies and lax labor and environmental standards.”
Trump’s strong-worded message struck a chord with Americans concerned about U.S. jobs moving overseas and the effects of free trade agreements. The trade imbalance between the two nations is also quite obviously skewed, a fact made clear by the United States’ annual trade deficit with China, which reached $347 billion in 2016, down from an all-time high of $367 billion in 2015. Despite the strength of the rhetoric, though, China seemed surprisingly unagitated, with Vincent Ni of the BBC commenting that many in China saw Trump as an inspiration rather than an antagonist.
But things changed quite rapidly after the election, with Trump’s hard-line stance shifting from an economic focus to a geopolitical one. Though inklings of this shift were apparent immediately after the election, things changed dramatically in December, when Trump broke with tradition and spoke with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen by telephone. The call, though only ten minutes long, was the first time a U.S. president or president-elect had spoken to a Taiwanese leader since the late 1970s after the U.S. recognized the People’s Republic of China as representing China, marking the beginning of the United States’ adoption of the One China policy. The move shocked Chinese politicians across the board and resulted in Beijing lodging an official complaint with the United States over the matter.
Less than two weeks later, Trump added fuel to the fire by publicly declaring that the United States would not necessarily be bound by the One China policy, despite the fact that it has been the cornerstone of Sino-American relations for decades. As Dr. Rigger told MintPress, Trump’s open questioning of the One China policy, along with the phone call to the Taiwanese president, was “a catastrophe for the People’s Republic of China.”
Zhu Feng, dean of the Institute of International Relations at Nanjing University, seconded this view, telling the Washington Post that it was “a heavy blow” to the Chinese government.
Though Trump just recently capitulated, declaring that he would honor the One China policy, damage has already been done even though more dramatic consequences were avoided.
‘The US is going to make sure that we protect our interests’
While some spectators would learn from his mistakes prior to the inauguration, the early days of Trump’s presidency have been equally troublesome and tense for Sino-American relations. As if publicly questioning the One China policy were not enough, the Trump administration chose to involve itself in one of the most contentious topics in East Asian politics — the ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea. On Jan. 23, in the administration’s very first press briefing, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said that “the U.S. is going to make sure that we protect our interests” in the South China Sea, where China claims several islands as its own — a claim disputed by other nations in the region.
Spicer’s tough talk on the South China Sea echoed remarks from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at his confirmation hearing on Jan. 11, when he said, “We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed.”
In response, the state-run China Daily newspaper asked if such a response “would set a course for devastating confrontation between China and the U.S.”
“After all, how can the U.S. deny China access to its own territories without inviting the latter’s legitimate, defensive responses?” the China Daily editorial asked.
More recently, the Trump administration has — once again — entered the fray on another contentious geopolitical issue revolving around regional territorial disputes — that of a group of islands in the East China Sea known to the Japanese as the Senkaku Islands and to China as the Diaoyu Islands.
On Feb. 10, Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe issued a joint statement regarding the U.S. stance on the dispute. According to the statement, both nations “affirmed that Article V of the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security covers the Senkaku Islands.”
“They oppose any unilateral action that seeks to undermine Japan’s administration of these islands. The United States and Japan will deepen cooperation to safeguard the peace and stability of the East China Sea,” the statement continued.
In recent years, the dispute has grown increasingly tense and the area has been the site of various military standoffs between the two nations. One of the more recent incidents took place in December, when the Chinese defense ministry accused Japanese jets of interfering with “Chinese military aircraft from close range and even launched jamming shells, which endangered the safety of Chinese aircraft and crew.” Japan argued that the fighter jets were scrambled when six Chinese aircraft “trespassed” on territorial waters near the disputed islands. According to CNN, Japan reported that it “scrambled” Chinese jets in the vicinity of the islands 407 times between April 1 and Sept. 30 of last year.
The conflict is widely believed to be responsible for Japan’s recent trend toward militarization, most recently culminating in Japan’s approval of a record-breaking ¥5.1 trillion (around $44 billion) defense budget.
Dr. Rigger commented, “China has created a situation in the East China Sea where Japan has to put a lot of resources into maintaining the level of response necessary to stop Chinese incursion.”
In response to Trump’s latest rebuke of foundational elements of Sino-American diplomacy, Geng Shuang, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, commented that China was “seriously concerned and resolutely opposed” to the joint Trump/Abe announcements, adding: “No matter what anyone says or does, it cannot change the fact that the Diaoyu Islands belong to China.”
While Trump may be able to smooth over this latest provocation of the Chinese government, this trend cannot continue for much longer without more serious consequences.
Trump ‘wants to be unpredictable in the eyes of the Chinese government’
To many observers, Trump’s actions seem counterproductive, to say the least. Several experts have pointed to Trump’s alleged ignorance of international relations, particularly in East Asia, as the most likely cause of the president’s now decidedly complicated relationship with China.
During the fallout over the Taiwan phone call, Bonnie Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told the Washington Post, “My guess is that Trump himself doesn’t have a clue.” Susan Shirk, chair of the 21st Century China Program at the University of California at San Diego, told the Post that the move was “impulsive.” Chinese state-run media outlets also took this view, with the Global Times asserting that while “many people might be surprised at how the new U.S. leader is truly a ‘businessman’ through and through, […] in the field of diplomacy, he is as ignorant as a child.”
Dr. Rigger similarly argued that Trump likely took the suggestions of some of his advisors too far, likely out of ignorance:
“There are a number of people in the Trump administration and who are advisors [to the administration] who have been saying for a long time that the U.S. needs to stand up to China a little more firmly. There are policy realms in which that makes sense, but Trump didn’t personally understand the logic or details of what they were suggesting and came out a little hot. Then he had to capitulate completely.”
However, with these “slip-ups” continuing to occur despite sharp rebukes from Beijing, others have expressed a different view of the situation. According to Trump advisor and renowned China expert Michael Pillsbury, Trump is intentionally trying to throw China off balance. Late last month, Pillsbury told CGTN, a Chinese broadcaster, that Trump “wants to be unpredictable toward Chinese.” Referencing one of Trump’s books, Pillsbury added that because “the Chinese are the best negotiators in the world,” Trump thinks he can gain leverage by becoming “unpredictable in the eyes of the Chinese government.”
In his 2015 book, “Great Again: How to Fix Our Crippled America” (originally titled: “Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again”), Trump laid out this strategy, writing: “The element of surprise wins battles. So I don’t tell the other side what I’m doing, I don’t warn them, and I don’t let them fit me comfortably into a predictable pattern.”
Still, others perceive Trump’s stance on China as part of something much more worrisome. David Swanson, noted anti-war activist and author, told MintPress that Trump has “surrounded himself with a circle of madmen, some of whom are more excited about China and others Iran.”
“I think [Trump] follows the flow of opinion among those madmen and among that 40% of the country that supports him,” Swanson noted.
Indeed, Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist who has been given a seat in the National Security Council, stated last March that conflict with China, particularly over the islands dispute in the South China Sea, was inevitable. Considering Secretary of State Tillerson’s strongly-worded position on the South China Sea issue, it remains to be seen if Trump will side with his more hawkish advisors or if cooler heads will prevail.
Regardless of whether Trump’s provocative actions toward China were genuine error or part of a more calculated strategy, something has clearly shifted in Sino-American relations. Though the Trump presidency remains in its infancy, it seems obvious that Trump’s foreign policy — not just with China but internationally — will likely be defined by shocking displays of unpredictability and dramatic policy turn-abouts.
Though Trump may view this as a brilliant strategy on his part, there’s no guarantee that such tactics won’t backfire — a very real possibility that could have truly global implications.