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Trump’s China diplomacy: domestic policy failures could provoke combative bilateral relations

Image credit: Michael Vadon (Flickr: Creative Commons)

In the last two weeks of March, US President Donald Trump ran into the legislative quagmire that is the new Republican congress. In attempting to repeal the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and replace it with the American Health Care Act (Trumpcare), Trump failed to win over the required number of votes to pass the legislation and, in doing so, has let one of his tentpole election promises fail.

During negotiations, it became increasingly clear that Trump’s negotiating skills were wholly absent. By trying to appease far-right republicans with amendments to include less government control, he lost the support of those republicans that had seen the benefits of Obamacare in their states. Then in a bizarre move, he blamed democrats for the failure to repeal Obamacare and decided to walk away from healthcare legislation all together. The public backlash has been swift. Polling of Trumpcare has its approval rating sitting at 17%, and Trump’s overall polling has hit a new disapproval record of 52.6% since taking office.

This domestic policy failure now raises an important question: how will Trump and his administration respond? As of last week, we now seem to have an answer. When tweeting about this week’s US-China talks, Trump reverted to the tough-talking, economic-populist foreign policy of the campaign. Specifically, he outlined trade deficits, US job losses and how the talks with President Xi would be ‘very difficult’. The timing of the tweet highlighted a renewed desperation within the administration for the media narrative to move away from domestic policy failures and onto the international realm. The concern with this kind of rhetoric, however, is that it potentially and thus needlessly creates tension between the two powers in the hope of achieving nothing more than short-term popularity and approval boosts. The upcoming Trump-Xi talks will cover topics that are crucial to security within the Asia-Pacific, ranging from North Korea’s nuclear ambitions through to South China Sea disputes. These two areas of discussion alone are not areas where combative bilateral relations are warranted.

As reported by Graham Allison in the Washington Post last Friday, Trump is now expected to use the upcoming talks to pressure Xi into reining in the North Korean nuclear program. This comes at a moment when North Korea is raising international concerns around the possibility of preparing new nuclear and/or ballistic missile tests to coincide with the talks, and the Trump administration enforcing new sanctions on the state. For China, North Korea is a running problem. The desire for a buffer state between China and South Korea remains paramount to Chinese foreign policy interests, and following the US down an increasingly tough-talking narrative heightens internal Chinese worries of regime collapse. North Korean regime collapse would no doubt lead to China sending troops into the region, followed by the possibility of South Korean intervention to reunify the country. With new reports of the Pentagon analysing military options to halt the North Korean nuclear program and Trump making his latest comments about the upcoming meeting, China will no doubt approach these talks defensively at a time when closer and friendlier relations are crucial.

Building off this, there are similar concerns around the South China Sea. Back in late January, the Trump administration held a strong view on the disputed islands. At his confirmation hearing, Rex Tillerson made it clear that Chinese construction of islands in the South China Sea would have to stop and bordered on suggesting a blockade of the islands. This of course led to a strong Chinese reaction with state media suggesting that such a policy would require the US to ‘wage war’. Since that moment, Trump used his first phone conversation with Xi to calm tensions by ‘honouring’ the One China policy and seeking to remain ‘co-operative partners’.

Nevertheless, the South China Sea remains a topic of concern moving forward. Amy Searight and Geoffrey Hartman, writing for the National Interest, crucially examine how US policy on the South China Sea has stagnated. They rightly argue that the policy needs to be reinvigorated in a multilateral approach that expands in multiple policy directions to achieve the twin goals of protecting international law whilst maintaining productive relations with China. Both authors succinctly argue current policy has become reactionary and not proactive. The US’ failure to proactively evolve South China Sea policy means that the risk organically increases.

At a time when cool heads are needed, there doesn’t seem to be any administration officials trying to steer Trump off this path. The lack of dissenting voices within the administration after the failure on domestic policy also suggests future policy failures could elicit similar overcompensating behaviour on the international stage—something that should worry allies and foes alike.

Charles Bryant was the July-December 2016 International Trade & Economy Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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