China and the US Under a Trump Presidency

By Vincent J. Truglia

For the last 70 years the US has worried about its place in the world, often to the detriment of its own people. Many traditional so-called foreign policy experts, most of whom are centered in New York, Washington, DC and in a few select academic institutions, have generally lived within a closed world, which thrives on elitist pretentions. It always seemed to me that when visiting the Council on Foreign Relations, CSIS and the major think tanks, it was simply their goal to maintain the status quo, even if the American people paid a heavy price by fighting unnecessary foreign wars, and by adopting deeply flawed trade agreements.

Out From The Ivory Tower

Trump is removing US foreign policy from the ivory tower to the real world. This implies a degree of unpredictability never seen before in US foreign policy. For the first time, it will be difficult to predict how the US may react to any particular circumstance. This has to be terrifying to the Chinese. They are obsessed with their ability to read the US. Those days are over. For instance, the tweet by Trump telling the Chinese to keep the drone they “stole” was certainly not a sign of weakness, but of contempt.

One China Policy

Trump’s recent apparent reversal regarding the US view of the One China policy is being sold to the Chinese public and elsewhere as a loss for Trump. The Chinese government is sadly mistaken. No one will be able to figure out Trump’s next move, except that he will do everything to favor real US national interests.

The policy shift was perfectly timed with the visit of Japan’s Prime Minister Abe. The most important result of the US-Japan meeting has been the reiteration by Trump of the US security agreement with Japan, which covers all territories administered by Japan. Since China and Japan are clashing over the status of islands in the Sea of Japan, approving a long-standing policy regarding One China seems a low price to pay while, at the same time, giving the Chinese notice that the islands administered by Japan are covered by a US military guarantee. Trump recognizes that maintaining a security shield over Japan is a vital US national interest. Taiwan is not very important to the US.

Also, since Trump has now supposedly caved to the Chinese, Trump will expect some help regarding North Korea. If Trump is not rewarded for his statement regarding One China, then China should expect many other problems coming from yet undisclosed directions.

Beware a Wolverine in Paper Tiger Clothing

Chinese media are now calling the US under Trump a paper tiger, an allusion to Mao’s comments decades ago. I believe the Chinese are again mistaken. I would say that the best analogy for how Trump will guide US policy is to compare it to a wolverine, long considered to be among the most dangerous and persistent predators.

The Chinese believe that Trump will be purely transactional. I think that is also mistaken.

His foreign policy will be more strategic that they realize. One of the best ways to defeat an opponent is let them believe that you are intellectually inferior. The insults, which often spew forth from Beijing, illustrating how sophomoric they can be, indicating that they are misjudging him.

The Chinese claim Trump has no foreign policy experience. They are naïve if they believe that. You don’t successfully do business all over the world in countries with extraordinarily different legal systems, politics, etc., if you are naïve about how the world works.

Centrifugal Forces

The backdrop for all this is that the Chinese leadership assumes they are set to replace the US as the world’s preeminent power. Senior Chinese officials have had the hutzpah to claim that the world is simply not YET psychologically ready for China’s dominant role.

I have been following China since the 1960s when I began to study Mandarin Chinese. Chinese history is fascinating. The great risk China faces is domestic, caused by a growth of centrifugal forces, something that has happened throughout Chinese history. There is an on-going, and even rising tension between the provinces and the center. We should always remember that these provinces often have more people than most nations. Also, many provinces speak dialects, which are further apart from each other than are the Romance languages. Fortunately, all use the same ideograms for writing. Nonetheless, they do have a distinct self-identity, analogous to European nation states, which share a European ethos, but still remain culturally different.

As time passes and the country’s economy grows, it will become increasingly difficult for the center to control the provinces. Over time, China may not be as politically stable as many believe.

Summary

All in all, we should expect much more tension with China, especially regarding the South China Sea. The Chinese should be playing a bigger role in protecting Asian energy and other trade routes, since they are far more dependent than the US on maintaining free transport in Asia. However, they are going about it in a way that is alienating not only the  US, but also most other East Asian countries. China’s military buildup in South East Asia, which I would argue is a natural development of its growing importance in the region, should be based on formal agreements. For the West, contracts mean a lot. China’s unilateral actions will only inflame the situation. China and the US should together call for a summit of interested powers to decide the bast way to handle the complicated situation in the South China Sea.

As always, Clear and Candid.