When Donald Trump was elected president of the United States in November, most Chinese cheered.
Hillary Clinton was associated with Barack Obama’s Asia “pivot” strategy, which Chinese saw as synonymous with “containment,” while Trump appeared to be a pragmatic businessman.
Chinese expected him to focus on domestic economic issues and relieve some pressure in the political and military arenas of the bilateral relationship.
In the days that followed the election, however, Trump’s phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and threats of a trade war significantly tempered Chinese optimism about relations with the US in the post-Obama era. Some on the extremes editorialized it was time for China to “abandon its illusions and prepare for a struggle.”
Others held fast to the “Mar-a-Lago fantasy” — a world of history lessons from Xi, flattering tweets from Trump, and where no problem, not even Taiwan, could not be resolved through the Cui-Kushner channel — China’s ambassador to the US and Trump’s son-in-law and trusted mediator.
To those ascribed to such views, Beijing had figured Trump out and was more than capable of managing the new administration’s policy on China.
Yet, since the US-China Diplomatic and Security Dialogue in June, it appears the Trump administration is beginning to shed its illusions, too, and face the realities of Chinese behavior and cooperation on a range of economic and security issues.
At the talks between the State and Defense Departments and their Chinese counterparts, the US had hoped to elevate and focus discussions with China on key issues in order to break through old sticking points. The Chinese side, however, appeared chiefly concerned with protocol — confirming Trump’s bilateral with Xi at the G20 summit in Hamburg and his state visit to China later this year.
Thus, the meetings exposed the widening expectations gap between the US and Chinese governments, and led Trump to take action.
In the span of just three days last week, the US conducted a freedom-of-navigation operation in the South China Sea, announced new arms sales to Taiwan and sanctioned a Chinese bank in response to North Korea’s nuclear program.
This set the stage for a more frank exchange between the two presidents on the sidelines of the G20 this week as well as a more clear-eyed framework for the US-China relationship.
On the Chinese side, while Xi was able to restore stability to US-China relations at April’s Mar-a-Lago summit and reassure an anxious Chinese public that he was in control, assuming that China has Trump wrapped around its finger is a dangerous miscalculation.
Trump’s veneration for Xi has been based on an expectation that China can and will make fundamental changes to its economic behavior and North Korea policy.
Although Beijing has been willing to make progress on low-hanging fruit in White House priority areas since Mar-a-Lago, there are few signs it intends to address the more systemic and fundamental contradictions at the core of US-China tensions.
North Korea and economics
So much in the US-China relationship is now riding on China solving the North Korea challenge, which most experts say Beijing lacks the political will to do.
China already appears to be reaching the limits of its willingness to pressure Pyongyang, as evidenced by the Treasury Department’s recent actions. Despite its suspension of coal imports from North Korea in February, Chinese trade with North Korea grew nearly 40% in the first quarter of the year compared with 2016.
The Chinese continue their longstanding calls for dialogue as North Korean weapons grow more advanced and sophisticated. At the same time, Beijing is resistant to US invitations to engage in contingency-planning discussions involving our militaries in the event of a worst-case scenario on the Korean Peninsula.
In the economic arena, the American and Chinese business communities have long served as a stabilizing force for relations during times of political tension. The 100-Day Action Plan established at Mar-a-Lago was an important step toward addressing imbalances in the commercial and economic relationship that threaten that ballast, and reinstating a pragmatic agenda for bilateral trade and investment liberalization.
But while concessions made at Mar-a-Lago to open Chinese market access for US beef, biotechnology applications, and financial services will benefit American businesses, more significant Chinese structural reforms have run into much greater difficulty. Underwhelming results at the end of the 100 days could lead to disappointment that cuts against the two leaders’ constructive tone.
The road ahead
Much work lies ahead to ensure that constructive ties can be sustained over the long term. Avoiding whiplash in US-China relations will require that both countries establish a more comprehensive foundation for the relationship.
For China, preventing US disappointment will require that it makes concrete progress in priority areas. In agreeing to elevate bilateral discussions with the new Comprehensive Dialogue Mechanism, the US was underscoring to China the importance of a results-oriented relationship.
For the US, the singular focus on North Korea is not only naive and ineffectual, but also masks other consequential issues in the relationship that need to be addressed directly and candidly.
As the Trump administration presses the Chinese leadership to deal more proactively with Pyongyang, it must also be able to robustly defend US interests in the South China Sea, raise human rights concerns, and identify common regional and global challenges where our countries can work together constructively.
Both administrations have the opportunity at Hamburg to expand the purview of the bilateral relationship and develop clear-eyed goal posts for progress.
Given the challenges confronting Presidents Trump and Xi at home and abroad, a more robust and comprehensive framework for relations that is capable of narrowing areas of difference and deepening cooperation in areas of common interests will best support the domestic agendas of both countries and the security and prosperity of the world.