The Trump administration’s China policy is misguided. But it will not cause a war between the United States and China. Mainstream news outlets like NPR, Vox and Time would have you believe that US-China relations have never been worse. Western journalists have outlined a vision of the future US-China relationship drawing heavily from ultra-nationalist state-run newspaper The Global Times. The newspaper has lambasted Chinese officials for being ‘too controlled in their reaction’, and has directly advocated the use of force to protect China’s territorial interests in the South China Sea and Taiwan. Yet, while this viewpoint certainly reflects a vocal nationalist group, China’s official reaction to American policy development shows otherwise.
Trump’s Secretary of State pick Rex Tillerson raised tensions at his confirmation hearing in what many saw as support for American intervention in the South China Sea, stating that ‘You’re going to have to send China a clear signal that first, the island building stops, and second, your access to those islands is also not going to be allowed’. Similarly, an indication that the bedrock of US-China relations, the One China Policy, will be discarded has alarmed observers. In a Wall Street Journal interview last week, Trump commented on the One China Policy and China’s alleged currency manipulation, commenting that ‘everything is under negotiation, including One China’.
Trump’s approach is incredibly business-oriented, with little concern for any principles or values that underpin the US-China relationship. He is taking a profit-maximising approach, trying to broker the most preferential deals, gain the maximum amount of leverage and emerge with the upper hand. Taiwan has complained that they are being used as a pawn in negotiations between the US and China and given Trump’s negotiating style, this is probably true. Trump has been advantaged by the fact that there is relatively little clear, quality information about his foreign policy views and thus no consensus.
Yet, this only makes him powerful if his words provoke a reaction. The reaction from the Chinese government, its official mouthpiece The People’s Daily, and its people, has been notably muted. Beijing has called for stability and continuing the relationship on its principles of ‘non-confrontation, non-conflict, mutual benefit and win-win cooperation’, and has certainly played up the tumultuous nature of Trump’s presidency as evidence of the chaos of the American system. But there is one ‘core interest’ on which Beijing is unlikely to compromise: Taiwan.
Beijing arguably has the capacity to defend one of its other ‘core interests’, the South China Sea—but would it? The South China Sea critically differs from Taiwan in that it enjoys far less popular support. Is the average Chinese mother willing to send her son to die over a bunch of rocks? As James Palmer writes in Foreign Policy, ‘[Taiwan] is bone deep in Mainland Chinese, a conviction drummed into them by childhood and constantly reasserted. Plenty of elements of party propaganda are inconsequential to most Chinese or even mocked. Taiwan is not one of them’.
On 14 January, China’s foreign ministry responded to the comments, asserting that the One China policy was ‘non-negotiable’ and, as they had previously noted, if the policy were discarded ‘there would be nothing to discuss on co-operations in major fields with the US’. Taiwan is absolutely a ‘core interest’ in that it comprises China’s territorial integrity and self-image. In the words of President Xi Jinping, ‘we will stick to the road of peaceful development, but will never give up our legitimate rights and will never sacrifice our national core interests. No country should presume… that we will swallow the “bitter fruit” of harming our sovereignty, security or development interests’.
From President Xi’s point of view, with the 19th Annual Congress occurring in Spring this year, he has a vested interest in appearing resolute on issues of US-China relations. From President Trump’s point of view, what we can expect is a little more complicated.
Firstly, as Evan Osnos from The New Yorker has pointed out, Trump has been shown to be highly exploitable by his team of advisers. Assuming Tillerson’s position is genuine, it could be that his China policy comes to dominate. Or it could be that General Mattis’ more moderate position, calling for a complete and coherent policy prepared by the State, Defense and Treasury departments, influences Trump more.
Secondly, there are only so many policy promises Trump can try and fulfil, thus he must prioritise. Will he build a wall, fix relations with Russia, intervene in the South China Sea, change the One China policy, restrict immigration or create jobs? He must choose.
President Trump has stated that his priorities in office will focus on immigration and creating jobs. Moreover, the average American does not have a problem with China per se—they only really care about China insofar as it impacts their job opportunities. For Trump, the most prudent act would likely be targeting this problem. Whether a negotiated trade deal with China would be involved is unclear. But neither a grand bargain, nor war is likely.
Jacinta Keast is the China Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.