The Trump Administration and US-China Relations

In a post-Cold War era in which no single hegemonic superpower dictates the world order, the United States finds itself confronted with the challenge of facing the rapidly increasing influence of China. With a larger group of lesser but growing smaller powers, among the new administration’s first tasks includes addressing the diminished confidence among allies and friends that the United States intends to remain engaged in the world. As the balance of power shifts towards China, many nations observe the United States appearing to turn inward and move towards protectionism. The US continues to maintain superiority in air and naval power, but other countries have begun to adjust their own policies to accommodate Chinese interests. Former Ambassador J. Stapleton Roy highlighted the need for the United States to move quickly if it intends to maintain its role as guarantor of the regional order.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States was provided with a chance to restructure the global system. Instead of pursuing a balanced international system, the United States focused on maintaining its role as the sole superpower and resisted the strengthening of potential threats that limited American power. The concept of checks and balances was applied on the domestic level but ignored on an international scale, resulting in the increase of global tensions. NATO was preserved as a defense alliance, and its influence reached the backdoor of Russia; persistent US messages of expansion to Russian borders led Putin to gain domestic support of his opinions on the matter. The United States also suffered from a series of foreign policy failures in the Middle East resulting in several unintended consequences.

Improving Sino-Russian relations, having reached its best in modern history with diminished ideological rivalry, may have broad implications for US policy interests around the world, including Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia. Trade between the two nations increased twenty-fold over the past 25 years, exceeding $100 billion in 2014. Both China and Russia feel threatened by US unilateralism, the impact of the Color Revolution, and increasing Western influence. It is unclear the extent to which Russian resources will be used for Chinese initiatives such as One Belt One Road, but over time the financial element of the relationship could become more significant. Although it is generally agreed that Central Asia has vast infrastructure needs that should be addressed, Xi’s desire to expand into the region through the New Silk Road presents a policy issue for the United States. If these programs are realized, in several decades the region will be connected by network of high speed railroads and pipelines that will improve Chinese access to even Europe. Energy infrastructure investments throughout Central Asia would also provide China with additional strategic geopolitical advantages.

Former Ambassador Roy noted that given the current political climate, the United States may be unprepared to successfully manage potential political frictions with China. Only half of the Trump administration has prior government experience, whereas between 80% and 90% of the appointees of the four previous administration began with government experience. At the 2017 World Economic Forum in Davos, Chinese President Xi Jinping clearly indicated he intends to assume a stronger role in the global economic system, while the United States has expressed the increasing likelihood of retreating towards protectionism. American withdrawal from the TPP amidst Chinese promotion of RCEP, on the other hand, may be perceived as accepting a diminished role.

Beginning with Trump’s phone call to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, tensions of the US-China relationship have increased. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s initial suggestion to block Chinese access to islands in the South China Sea, coupled with his affirmation of his intentions to sell more arms to Taiwan, threaten the status quo and increase the possibility of a Sino-US military confrontation. Proposals to allow officials to travel to Taiwan and meet with their Taiwanese counterparts, though not binding on the executive branch, would undermine the US commitment to maintain only unofficial relations with Taiwan. Taiwanese officials themselves recognize that destabilizing rhetoric from the US government would have a significant negative impact on its own relations with Beijing.

Nevertheless, East Asia is a global bright spot and may continue to be so as long as regional stability is maintained. If the US can find policy approaches that keep the region moving in a positive direction, all parties involved may enjoy decreased tensions and greater economic harmony. Beijing, though understandably opposed to US arms sales to Taiwan, recognizes that US policy is not aimed at promoting independence or creating a threat against Mainland China. Thus, the United States must retain credibility that Taiwan will not become a military strategic point or directly incorporated into a US defense strategy. Frictions between major powers, while inevitable, can be mitigated by various mechanisms that when properly utilized can explore resolutions and diffuse conflicts.

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