Bracing for Change, Trump and China Square Up

The Trump Administration’s hard-nosed policies towards China may have their merits.

Over the past eight years, President Obama’s attempted “pivot to Asia” strategy, aimed at containing the Chinese government’s objectives in the Asia-Pacific, has fallen flat. In the face of relatively feeble opposition, China has developed artificial military island bases throughout the South China Sea, attempted to assume control of the region, and tested Japan’s claim to possession of the Senkaku Islands. The Obama administration’s apparent inability to halt China’s advance has brought into question the true extent of America’s capacity to ensure international security and peace in the Asia-Pacific region. By failing to prevent the longtime US-allied Philippines’ increasing cooperation with China under President Rodrigo Duterte, the Obama administration exposed its limited capacity to oppose solidifying Chinese dominion in the region and prominence worldwide.

Change in the White House has spelled a new approach to US foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific. Throughout his presidential campaign and the months leading up to his inauguration, Trump railed against China’s growing dominance in the Asia-Pacific at America’s expense, a geopolitical development he attributes largely to the shortcomings of the Obama administration. In the past, Trump has claimed that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by China; threatened to initiate a trade war with China to reclaim outsourced American manufacturing jobs; accused the Chinese government of state-sponsored cyberwarfare; and insisted that China consistently outplays America on the international stage.

While the accusations Trump has levelled against China are questionable at best and blatantly false at worst, the new president’s rhetoric is certainly indicative of a bombastic and stubborn approach to combating Chinese influence that breaks sharply from the policies of the Obama administration. While Trump’s critics would argue that his words reflect only a lack of knowledge or appreciation for the complexities that define international relations between two superpowers, a new US president’s assertions can nonetheless have a far greater impact than any consequent action or inaction moving forward. The Trump administration, by its sheer nerve and unpredictability, may prove to be more effective than the Obama administration at countering China’s agenda.

Before entering the Oval Office, Trump and his administration have moved to press their advantage and gain leverage in forthcoming negotiations with China. Weeks after winning the 2016 US presidential election, Trump accepted a congratulatory phone call from President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan, breaking the United States’ decades-old one-sided acquiescence to the “One China” policy, which maintains that the People’s Republic of China, not the Republic of China (Taiwan), is the only legitimate Chinese nation-state. After the phone call, Trump faced condemnation from media outlets and liberal observers who jumped on the controversy, jeering at Trump for his supposed lack of foreign policy awareness and blatant disregard for accepted protocol. What Trump’s critics have failed far too often to realize, though, is that his greatest strength is the widespread underestimation of his methods.

The phone call between Trump and Tsai was not an unintentional diplomatic blunder. Rather, the call was meticulously planned and executed by Trump’s transition team. The goal? To send a deliberate and lucid message to the Chinese government and those in Washington who continue to yield to China’s interests: Trump is not a lifetime politician concerned with adhering to broken diplomatic traditions. Trump will not allow a foreign power to dictate his interactions with other world leaders, irrespective of past American presidents’ habits. And, most profoundly, Trump, unlike his predecessor, is not afraid to openly defy China’s vested national interests if they run counter to those of the United States and its allies.

Trump only escalated his line of attack against China in the weeks preceding his inauguration. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Trump remarked that “everything is under negotiation, including One China,” within his vision of US policy in the Asia-Pacific. The Obama administration, by following decades of established foreign policy tradition in its adherence to the “One China” policy, severely handicapped its diplomatic maneuverability in the Asia-Pacific. Trump, by refusing to afford the Chinese government the same advantages that it has exploited for years, is setting the stage for the potential reformulation of US-China relations in a manner that decisively benefits American interests.

Predictably, the new president’s continued insistence on the flexible nature of US-China relations has not gone over well with Beijing, which retaliated by warning that China might “take off the gloves”—something that was apparently never deemed necessary when Obama was in office—should Trump continue on his present course. Furthermore, the Chinese government requested that the United States prevent Taiwanese representatives from attending Trump’s inauguration. Their request went unmet, though, as a Taiwanese delegation was present for the inauguration; its leader, former Taiwanese premier Yu Shyi-kun, professed his belief that US-Taiwan relations are at a “historic high.”

Trump’s opinions—and policies—will reflect a new and confrontational American brashness in the Asia-Pacific. The Trump administration will seek to undermine China’s agenda and force our Asian rival to respect American power. Our future relationship with China will be unpredictable and uncertain, but our government will also be more tenacious in its commitment to protecting the interests of America and its allies in the Asia-Pacific, rather than succumbing to the whims of a foreign power that does not share our ideals or values. The United States does have the necessary geopolitical and economic bargaining chips to stand up to China.

We have seen the Obama administration’s strategy at the bargaining table with China, and it has failed. We now just have to wait and see what Trump brings to the table and whether his bold originality can succeed where Obama did not.

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.

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