Under Donald Trump, is China America’s new frenemy? Relationship looks Janus faced now

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New Delhi | Updated: Feb 25, 2017 4:54 AM

Recently, Ivanka Trump’s daughter Arabella Kushner reciting a Mandarin song became wildly popular on YouTube, seemingly in tune with the spirit of Chinese New Year festivities.

The crux of Sino-US relations of 40 years of diplomatic ties is the long-standing ‘One China’ policy.

Recently, Ivanka Trump’s daughter Arabella Kushner reciting a Mandarin song became wildly popular on YouTube, seemingly in tune with the spirit of Chinese New Year festivities. But as far as Ms Trump’s father, US President Donald Trump, is concerned-be it his voluble tweets on China ramping up artificial islands in the South China Sea, nominating Peter Navarro to lead the National Trade Council (Navarro is the author of ‘Death By China’, 2005) or openly questioning ‘One China’ policy-he seems more in line with the Chinese nian gao (new year cake), which is sticky and messy to eat. President Trump’s flip-flop on China has gone from openly questioning ‘One China’ to later affirming ‘One China’ to the current US deployment of the carrier strike group (including Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson) in the South China Sea-a relationship going down, up and down.

Going back to President Trump’s flip-flop, his missives on China began early on the campaign trail when a not-so-shy Trump called China a ‘currency manipulator’, blamed it with a heist of sorts-“the greatest job theft in the history of the world”-and went as far as calling global warming a ‘Chinese hoax’. His December 16 tweet: “Did China ask us if it was OK to devalue their currency (making it hard for our companies to compete), heavily tax our products going into … their country (the US doesn’t tax them) or to build a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea? I don’t think so!” ruffled Chinese feathers, to say the least.

It is well-known by now that President-elect Trump broke the protocol by accepting a congratulatory phone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, the first time ever that an American President (or President-elect) spoke with his Taiwanese counterpart, spurring China to lodge a formal complaint. Many observers interpreted this as a hard stance towards China.

On January 14 (two days before the inauguration), President Trump indicated to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) that “Everything is under negotiation including One China”-leaving the diplomatic community in China and the US in a tizzy. In guarded response, China Daily (January 25) indicated that the US “speak and behave with caution” and quoted Teng Jianqun of the China Institute of International Studies saying, “China will never compromise on territorial issues.”

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However, in a dramatic reversal (and this is a crucial point), President Trump backtracked his earlier questioning of the ‘One China’ policy. This was much welcomed, but that the ‘One China’ policy was not thought through in the first place alarmed seasoned US observers.

This brings us to what Sino-US relations are like. The reality is that Sino-US relations are complex and complicated, cast in stone as deeply embedded and mutually interdependent-but then too, are laced with a deep-rooted distrust which observers call ‘trust deficit’.

The crux of Sino-US relations of 40 years of diplomatic ties is the long-standing ‘One China’ policy. This ‘One China’ formed the basis of the famous Shanghai Communiqué of 1972, which led to the normalisation of Sino-US relations in 1979. Subsequently, it was China, not Taiwan, which occupied the Security Council of the United Nations.

On Taiwan, while it is true that the recent decade has seen massive US arms sales to Taiwan-including ex-President Barack Obama’s administration which made one of the biggest arms sales of $6.4 billion to Taiwan in 2010-the US is still shy of official relations with Taiwan. A country of 23 million, Taiwan, said to be “the only democracy in the Chinese-speaking world” and the “first Asian country to legalise same-sex marriage,” maintains non-official relations with most countries, including the US (or, for that matter, with India; the latter maintains the India-Taipei Association).

Like India, which recently welcomed an informal visit by a parliamentary delegation from Taiwan, US-Taiwan non-official relations are under the rubric of a non-official organisation-the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT)-and then there is the US umbrella of the Taiwan Relations Act (1979) which promises “peace, security, and stability in the Western Pacific.” So far, so good, albeit under such hazy clouds that the status quo goes on.

On one hand, there is a symbiotic relationship between the two countries. China’s exports need the American market, and it helps America that China has invested massively in US Treasury bonds. This is a ‘win-win’ for both-as scholar Eswar Prasad has noted, there are a “few relatively safe investments other than US government bond markets that are deep and liquid enough to absorb a significant portion of such massive inflows.” The US and China have 10-year reciprocal tourist visas, and of course the crème de la crème of the Chinese elite, including current President Xi Jinping’s daughter, are freshly minted out of top American schools.

On the other hand, there is obviously a ‘trust deficit’ that dogs the relationship-a natural ‘uncoupling’. The democrat and the autocrat make unlikely friends, what with Taiwanese aspirations, Tibetans self-immolating, Uyghurs on the edge with the recent (February 2017) stabbing-spree in Pishan county in the Turkic-Muslim province of Xinjiang, and well-known activists in China such as Xu Zhiyong (the human rights lawyer who spearheaded the New Citizens Movement, 2012) and Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo (who spearheaded the democratic charter, Charter 08) behind bars.

The trust deficit between China and the US, or mutually-assured dissent as scholar Kenneth Lieberthal says, also arises from a distrust of long-term intentions of the other as well as new issues (such as North Korea, South China Sea, East China Sea) that have become the irritants. In fact, Obama administration’s ‘pivot’ in the Asia-Pacific was largely to redress this, though some also viewed it as a strategy to contain China.

What then for Sino-US relations? The road ahead for the Trump administration is long. Amongst many thorns is an errant Pyongyang under current leader Kim Jong-un, as is the de-nuclearisation of North Korea, which conducted two nuclear tests and launched 24 missiles in 2016. North Korea is a staunch China ally, which incidentally has announced that it will halt its coal imports from North Korea this year.

The US is playing checkmate with the deployment of the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) in South Korea later this year, whose interception altitude is “high enough for Chinese long and medium range missiles,” which Beijing has objected to.

The South China Sea also continues to be a thorn. With China’s aircraft carrier Liaoning straying in the Bohai Sea and near Taiwan and Japan, and now with the deployment of the US carrier strike group, the waters of the sea are muddled.

China is noticeably upping the ante with reclamation efforts, fortifications, runways and lighthouses in the Fiery Cross Reef, Mischief Reef, Subi Reef (Spratlys) and Woody Island (Paracel Islands). The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is also sharpening its missile and submarine capabilities, and anti-access and area-denial (A2AD) capabilities.

And then there is yet another thorn in the simmering territorial dispute in the East China Sea between China and Japan.

Thus, the Sino-US relationship, of friends and rivals, looks Janus-faced as both cooperative and competitive, beneficial and conflictual.

In 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping sought to pin down Sino-US relations with “no conflict and no confrontation; mutual respect and win-win cooperation.” Realistically speaking, this is desirable but may not be achievable.

Recently, a bipartisan Task Force of several veteran China hands in the US including Susan Shirk (‘Fragile Superpower’, 2007), Barry Naughton (‘Growing Out Of The Plan’, 1995), Orville Schell (‘The Tiananmen Papers’, 2001) and others rolled out recommendations by way of a 72-page report titled “US Policy Toward China: Recommendations for a New Administration”.

The Task Force recognises a China acting “assertively in Asia, more mercantilist in their economic strategies and more authoritarian in their domestic policies,” but it sought a balance between engaging China with “mutually beneficial relations” and containing it via an active US presence in the Asia-Pacific region.

In the Asia-Pacific, with Japan bereft of military capabilities and not yet poised to play the lead, India too feeble to play the lead and yet troubling questions hovering over a rising China’s ‘peaceful rise’, your guess as to whether China is the next US frenemy is as good as mine.

The author is a Singapore-based Sinologist and adjunct fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi. She is the author of ‘Finding India in China’.

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