China’s critical international role may shape Trump’s approach

TrumpBy George N. Tzogopoulos

The evolution of the Sino-American relationship will be critical to the shaping of the world order in the following years. While China is prepared to show continuity in approaching the U.S. on the whole, the latter is pondering how it should approach the former.

For several months before his inauguration, Donald Trump was associating his slogan “Make America Great Again” with the adoption of tough economic measures against China. Several American journalists had predicted the beginning of a trade war while the Chinese media had warned about serious repercussions and an equally strong response by China.

Prognostics had also been worrying at the foreign policy level. Two months ago Trump sought to embarrass Beijing by having a phone-call with Taiwan’s leader Tsai Ing-wen. And last month, new U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson criticized China for developments in the South China during his Senate confirmation hearing.

Perhaps the only positive sign for a relatively smooth cooperation between China and the U.S. was the appointment of Terry Branstad for the position of the U.S. Ambassador to China. An “old friend” of President Xi Jinping and having significant experience in promoting trade deals between Iowa and Chinese provinces, Branstad could facilitate a better understanding between the two sides.

As opposed to the pre-election and post-election fever until January 20, the beginning of Trump’s presidency has been marked by a sincere will of the new U.S. administration to avoid starting its relationship with the Chinese on the wrong footing.

There are three examples confirming the American interest to initially keep tension low. First, Trump spoke with Xi on the phone and expressed his commitment to the one-China policy. Second, during his press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the U.S. president referred to that conversation and said: “I think we are on the process of getting along very well [with President Xi].” And third, Rex Tillerson met his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, in Germany on the sidelines of a working group with G20 foreign ministers. During this meeting, which the Washington Post portrays as “cordial,” he reaffirmed the one-China policy and argued that differences should be dealt with in a constructive way.

In his first weeks in office, Trump does not look to China only from a bilateral perspective but lays emphasis on the wider context. In particular, his administration values China’s critical regional and international role, or at least does not deliberately ignore it.The current juncture brings the issue to the forefront.

While Trump was hosting Abe, North Korea conducted a missile test causing alarm in Washington. According to the U.S. official position, Beijing “should do more” to persuade Pyongyang to cooperate with the international community. Following the meeting between Tillerson and Wang, for instance, the State Department said that the former highlighted the need for China “to use all available tools to moderate North Korea’s destabilizing behavior.”

The American argumentation certainly includes some flaws. That is because it is not China alone holding the key to a diplomatic solution as the U.S. communicates. Although its leverage is unquestionable, the resumption of six-party talks will be catalytic.

Foreign Minister Wang focused on this need in his recent speech during the Munich Security Conference. Moreover, Beijing’s concern for the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), a high-end U.S. missile defense system, in South Korea cannot be overlooked. Wang reiterated his country’s position in a meeting with his South Korean counterpart Yun Byung-se in Munich.

Irrespective of the Sino-American disagreement in dealing with North Korea, China is committed to act in accordance with international law and agreements. In implementing UN Resolution 2321, for example, it will suspend all imports of coal from North Korea until the end of 2017. This is another indication of its will to contribute to a solution of the problem. Approximately 40 percent of North Korea’s foreign currency is said to be earned from coal exports to China.

The fact that Beijing pushes towards the denuclearization of Pyongyang does not mean that the previously good co-operation between the two sides or the continuous sympathy of the Chinese people for the North Korean society will dramatically change. All this gives China a comparative advantage in approaching North Korea and is acknowledged by the Trump administration. It maybe constitutes the reason why the new U.S. president and his secretary of state seem to have buried their earlier anti-China rhetoric.

As long as China is growing, the country will be internationally respected. Although it is too early to predict how Sino-American relations will evolve under Trump, Beijing has already gained what it initially wanted: a relatively good communication level with the new, unpredictable American administration.

In spite of his lack of experience in dealing with foreign affairs and in this case with China, Trump is a quick learner. He pushes his agenda where he can but remains reserved when conditions do not allow for serious losses to his country’s interests. Of course future bilateral negotiations will be difficult. Nonetheless, it is better to launch a dialogue at all levels than to stick on dogmatism and arrogance.