US-China Relations in the Age of Trump
In contrast to sending positive messages toward Russia during the presidential campaign, Donald Trump never minced words when it came to China, threatening to label it a “currency manipulator”, accusing it of “stealing” American jobs, and talking to Taiwan’s president which seemed to put into doubt the long-standing “One China” policy pursued by the United States. Things did not exactly improve after Trump’s inauguration–the cruise missile strike against the Shayrat airbase in Syria took place while China’s President Xi Jinping was hosted by Trump at the latter’s Mar-a-Lago estate. As if to add insult to the injury to Xi Jinping’s standing, Trump went on to note China’s president was notified of the strike while the two were enjoying “a beautiful chocolate cake.” Trump’s veritable “charm offensive” did not end there–shortly after the Shayrat operation, the US Air Force dropped the MOAB, the largest conventional bomb in US inventory, on an alleged target in eastern Afghanistan, a country that actually shares a short border with China and as such is within China’s sphere of concern. But the piece de resistance was surely the US-generated crisis with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), in which Trump threatened to swiftly deal with DPRK, presumably by military means, and went so far as to make China responsible for DPRK’s actions, much as earlier he was threatening to hold Russia “responsible” for the false-flag Khan Sheikhoun chemical incident that was instantly blamed on the Assad government.
This remarkably rapid sequence of events which consisted of closely sequenced military and diplomatic initiatives in several different parts of the world suggests that the Trump Administration either opportunistically used the Khan Sheikhoun to, as it were, kill several birds with one stone and attempt to address several different thorny problems all at once, or its members were behind the Khan Sheikhoun incident right from the beginning. In retrospect, considering the subsequent developments in the US-China relations, the timing of the Shayrat strike was so remarkable that it could hardly have been coincidental. Had the Trump Administration, including President Trump himself, not wanted to use it as a means to send a message to Xi Jinping, they could have simply waited for a few hours before launching the strike, which means that they actually wanted to see China’s president suffer a humiliation of this kind. Also considering the subsequent events, it is not unreasonable to suspect that he was the main target of that strike.
In terms of relations with Russia, the strike gave Trump the ability to claim he was dealing from a position of strength and that he was not “Putin’s puppet,” but produced no tangible results other than perhaps the strengthening of Syrian air defenses against a repeat of Shayrat. EU was unimpressed by US claims of Syrian responsibility for Khan Sheikhoun, and Tillerson’s visit to Moscow was a fizzle. But it is in the relations with China that the Shayrat strike still resonates. The subsequent MOAB strike on Afghanistan and the show of force off the shores of Korea and the deployment of THAAD anti-ballistic missile systems to the Republic of Korea likewise seem calculated to capitalize on the Shayrat strike which was clearly intended to put Xi Jinping off balance. But to what aim?
The seemingly erratic actions of the Trump team, and the domestic opposition to their priorities, do have the effect of obscuring the consistency of their vision, which appears to consist of two elements: change in the US trade balance, and reduction of overseas commitments. The Trump-Pence Administration’s domestic policies are heavily focused on reducing government programs and spending and on the concurrent lowering of corporate and income tax rates. That objective cannot be met unless the US overseas commitments, particularly the “boots on the ground” types, are reduced in the foreseeable future. Trump’s demonstrations of force appear to be preparatory moves, a smoke screen, in advance of the inevitable retrenchment in that they are intended to mask the US weakness.
The change in trade balance is arguably the more important of the two tasks, as it is a necessary component of improving the domestic jobs picture, particularly in the area of low-skilled jobs that have been particularly heavily hit by outsourcing. Here the Trump-Pence team has been nothing if not consistent, lecturing China, Germany, Japan, and South Korea on the unacceptability of the current trade arrangements. The Trump Administration has gone so far as to punish, unilaterally and without a WTO approval, Canada with tariffs on lumber imports, and is considering forcing Canada to open its market to US dairy imports. South Korea and Germany have actually been presented with bills, ranging into multiple billions of dollars, to compensate for the US-provided military security. And when it comes to China, Trump quite plainly said that if China were to help the US in “resolving” the North Korea issue which would then obviate the need for US troops on the Korean peninsula, China would be rewarded with a better trade deal.
When one simultaneously examines the US overtures to the ROK and the PRC, one gets the impression the Trump Administration is trying to play them off against each other. Pay us for US-provided security and US troops remain in the ROK. Help us limit or decommission DPRK nuclear and missile programs, and the PRC gets a better trade deal and no THAADs or other US forces in the ROK. The linkages between economic and security issues clearly show the Trump-Pence team are trying to accomplish both of these objectives at once, and that they are in something of a hurry.
The US diplomatic offensive has put China into a difficult position, since the country is actually more vulnerable to US political and economic pressure than Russia is, since it still relies so heavily on continued access to US consumer markets. The imposition of tariffs on China or labeling China as a currency manipulator could create problems for Xi Jinping in the form of rising unemployment and even unrest. At the same time, it is not clear whether China’s leadership would view a complete US withdrawal from the ROK as being in its interests. The emerging US military strategy against China, which dates back to the early years of the George W. Bush administration and which was only temporarily sidetracked by 9/11 posits a conflict waged by air, naval, and space forces operating from bases well outside the range of China’s short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. Hence the deployment of US troops to Australia and the reinforcement of Guam. But while US bases in the ROK are potentially useful in a conflict against the DPRK, they are actually a liability in any conflict against the PRC because even with heavy THAAD presence they would be quickly rendered useless by China’s short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, with heavy US losses in manpower and materiel. Therefore preventing the US from leaving the ROK altogether reduces the danger of the US contemplating aggressive military moves against the PRC, as any escalation would instantly endanger US forces in the ROK.
The likely PRC reaction will consist of minimizing the threat of rash US economic moves against China in the short term, in order to make itself less dependent on US markets and on trade routes subject to US air and naval interdiction. The very real downside to Trump’s demonstrations of force is that they are not effective in convincing anyone the US is a reliable long-term ally–rather the opposite, in fact. Unsurprisingly, both Russia and China have been slowly reducing their vulnerability to US economic pressure, with Russia being more successful in that regard but with China following suit. The still-unanswered question is whether similar US pressure on the EU will have the effect of pushing it closer into a trading and ultimately a political relationship with the two great Eurasian powers.
Source: South Front