Unpredictable, erratic, prone to contradiction and potentially very dangerous. Donald Trump’s policies towards China could turn out or indeed continue to be all of that. Then again, they could be none of that or something completely different and we already got a very good taste of what may lie ahead in terms of surprises of how he and (some of) his controversial advisers are planning to deal with Beijing. On the campaign trail and during the very early days of his administration, Trump announced that the so-called ‘One-China Principle’ is possibly up for negotiation and labeled China a ‘currency manipulator’, whose exports to the U.S. will be subject to heavy import taxes and tariffs. However, on the phone with Chinese President Xi Jinping days ago, Trump abruptly changed his mind and confirmed to Xi that Washington remains as ever committed to the ‘One-China-Principle’, acknowledging that the government in Mainland China represents all Chinese people, including those on Taiwan. One might indeed agree that allowing Beijing to oblige others to repeat the ‘One-China-Principle’ in parrot-style abiding to Chinese orders to call Taiwan a Chinese ‘province’ as opposed to what it really is - a vibrant democracy, which according to international law has all the requisites to be called a ‘country’ - is no longer adequate or acceptable in 2017. However, if one chooses to opt for re-visiting the ‘One-China-Principle’ as Trump did, then coherence is what is being called for to get the message across to Beijing on a sustainable basis. Trump’s flip-flopping on Taiwan and assuring Xi that Washington abides by the ‘One-China-Principle’ on the phone in turn is somehow the exact opposite of ‘coherent’. To be sure, the sort of incoherence that must have led to Xi popping the corks after this telephone conversation with Trump.
But not fast, because there is still the South China Sea, all of which is part of China’s “indisputable sovereign territory” as far as Beijing is concerned. China occupying and building civilian and military facilities on disputed islands in the South China Sea has long been a thorn in Washington’s side, apparently – at it least so it sounded in January – prepared to put an end to Beijing’s plans to ‘militarize’ islands, which might not even belong to China in the first place. In January, Donald Trump’s then appointee for U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced during the U.S. Senate confirmation hearing that “We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that first, the island-building stops, and second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed.” Quite a warning and indeed a fundamental change to U.S. policies in the South China Sea, which would upgrade the U.S. navy’s strategy from the occasional Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONP) in the South China Sea to blocking Chinese access to artificially built islands in disputed territorial waters. To be sure, Tillerson did not say anything about how Washington would be blocking Chinese access to any of the seven artificial islands Beijing has constructed and the idea – at least for now – was not followed-up on. Bill Hayton, South China Sea expert at Chatham House in London argues in an interview with The Economist that Tillerson’s verbal bombshell might all have been part of plan: Washington hinting at blocking China’s access to ‘its’ islands was meant to deter China from building a military base on the Scarborough Shoal, which Beijing took over from Philippines a few years ago. Analysts have long warned that a Chinese military base on the Scarborough Shoal would complement Chinese military bases already built on the Paracel and Spratly Islands, enabling China to militarily control all of the South China Sea. And of course it doesn’t exactly help that Trump gets China foreign policy advice from White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon, who thinks that war with China over the South China Sea in the next 5-10 years is ‘inevitable.’
And Beijing? Reactions and feelings towards Trump’s Washington must be ranging from shock to concern on to outright delight. Shock because Trump threatened to re-visit the ‘One China Principle’, concerned because of an overly impulsive idea to block Beijing’s access to disputed and occupied islands in the South China Sea and sheer delight because Trump made good on his election campaign promise to leave the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement. Indeed, Washington quitting the TPP must have been music to the ears of Chinese policymakers, who for years complained that the transcontinental free trade agreement is above all a U.S.-driven instrument to contain China politically and economically. But it could get worse (for the U.S.) or even better (for China), at least judging by what Australia and New Zealand announced the day after Trump declared that Washington is no longer part of the TPP. Both countries were reportedly thinking out loud about considering offering TPP membership to China. To be sure, Beijing might not even need TPP membership to further impose its version of economic and political integration onto Asia. It already has the funds and the instruments, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and its ‘own’ FTA, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (RCEP), to push for regional economic integration, Chinese-style.
There is seemingly no limit to the loss of foreign policy credibility if and when Trump’s tweet or ‘excellent’ phone calls call into question what Washington over decades stood for in international politics and security. Judging by the first month of ‘new’ U.S. policies towards China, it could turn out to be a very long four years of interesting at best and disastrous at worst U.S. China policies. Ironically, many in China’s policymaking and scholarly circles preferred Trump over Clinton during the election campaign, but that was before Trump took office and the megaphone into his hands. ‘Be careful what you wish for, it might just come true’ so to speak. And it just did.
Axel Berkofsky, Professor at the University of Pavia, Italy and Senior Associate Research Fellow at ISPI