Threaten sanctions for cyberattacks, pressure China over North Korea, uphold international law in the South China Sea. Which Donald Trump will show up to greet Chinese president Xi Jinping on Thursday in Mar-a-Lago?
Will it be the fire-breathing candidate of the campaign trail and transition, who called China a “cheater” on trade and who threatened to reconsider American commitment to the long-standing “One-China” policy?
Or will it be the president who agreed to recognize the very same One China policy and whose secretary of state repeated Chinese formulations of the basis of U.S.–Sino relations?
Behind the choice lies the larger question of whether the president has a China — or Asia — policy at all yet?
By the time of his inauguration, it seemed as though President Trump had wrestled the diplomatic initiative from Beijing, warning that he would slap tariffs on Chinese goods to even out an unfair playing field, dramatically taking a phone call from Taiwan’s president, and musing about upending 40 years of diplomatic relations based on the One China Policy.
We could have seen all this as the prelude to tough negotiations with Xi on issues ranging from the South China Sea to currency manipulation.
Once taking office, however, the administration seemed to tacked back: It largely emphasized cooperation in security issues and downplayed any specifics on trade retaliation.
Moreover, by pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the administration left the field open for China to pursue its own multilateral trade agreement in Asia. Then, just a few days ago, the president and his team once again adopted a harder line on the South China Sea and trade. The White House may believe that the mixed signals keep Beijing off-balance, but they just as easily give an impression of a policy that has not yet cohered.
So as the world press looks forward to a few days in the Florida sunshine, the stakes could not be higher for this first meeting between the heads of the world’s most powerful countries.
Can Trump wrangle all the loose ends of his China policy, and come up with a coherent, firm, and credible approach by the time he meets Xi? The biggest danger Trump faces when he sits down with Chinese president this week at Mar-a-Lago is that he might be put on the defensive.
Xi is coming off a lauded speech defending free trade at the World Economic Forum at Davos in January, while Trump is struggling to deal with North Korea and has yet to articulate an alternative to the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Surrendering the dynamic in Sino–U.S. relations to Xi in this first meeting could determine the administration’s Asia policy for the next four years.
Trump risks facing a confident Chinese leader who will come seeking to capitalize on his recent successes. Even if Trump doesn’t have a full Asia policy — in no small part because he does not yet have most of his foreign policy team in place — he needs to have at least a basic set of positions ready to present to his Chinese counterpart.
First, the president needs to walk back Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s endorsement of China’s call for “mutual respect” and “win-win cooperation” that Tillerson made in Beijing last month. China watchers knows that “mutual respect” means staying out of areas China considers vital to its interests, not to mention highlighting Beijing’s desire to be seen as an equal to the United States.
Trump cannot be seen as acquiescing in China’s new model of great-power relations. Instead, the president should call for a new realism in Sino–U.S. relations, recognizing that both countries will seek to maximize their national interests and that America will hold the line on protecting its position in Asia and will zero in on unfair Chinese trading practices.
On trade, the administration might be less inclined to punish tariffs than it earlier indicated, but Trump should put Xi on notice that the U.S. will no longer tolerate cyberattacks and the theft of intellectual-property rights.
He can make clear that he is willing to sanction individuals and companies that are involved in stealing or profiting from American firms, and he can also intimate that America has its own cyber capabilities in response. He can communicate as well that his administration will actively look at specific sectors where Chinese dumping might be occurring, thus putting pressure on Xi to deal with the problem before the Americans decide to act.
Next, Trump has to make pressuring North Korea a priority for Xi.
North Korea has become the administration’s first international crisis. It is also a headache for Trump’s relations with China.
Not only has Beijing pressured Trump to freeze military exercises with ally South Korea, in exchange for a purported North Korean freeze on nuclear and missile tests, but it has also vociferously objected to the installation of a new U.S. missile-defense system in South Korea.
Ironically, this has helped China seem the peacemaker, paternalistically warning that America and North Korea are recklessly heading toward conflict, and urging both sides to calm down. In this light, Xi looks more responsible and more influential in Asia than the American president does.
By now, it is clear that Beijing has little political leverage over Kim Jong-un.
However, China’a economic power is real. Threatening sanctions again and even access to the global financial system, Trump should demand that Xi crack down on both Chinese banks and the hundreds of companies doing business with North Korea. Beijing might not even know every entity involved in the multibillion-dollar cross-border trade, but past administrations have failed to impose any costs on China for propping up Pyongyang.
Further, Trump can threaten to widely provide ballistic missile-defense systems to U.S. allies beyond South Korea, including Taiwan and India, in response to the growing North Korean threat. This is something China wants to avoid, seeing it as aimed ultimately at its own missile capabilities.
More broadly, Trump can wrestle some of the initiative on security issues away from China. Beijing’s apparent statesmanship on the Korean peninsula does not extend to its own security interests. Just last month, the Chinese military threatened a U.S. Air Force bomber flying over the South China Sea, claiming that it was in Chinese airspace.
That won’t deter U.S. military operations in the region, but it reveals the belligerent mindset in Beijing on display in December, when the Chinese navy briefly seized a U.S. Navy underwater drone. Moreover, China continues to militarize the islands it has constructed in the disputed Spratly Islands group.
Trump should act decisively to uphold international law by announcing to Xi that the U.S. Navy and Air Force will undertake a regular schedule of freedom-of-navigation operations in the contested waters around the Spratly and Paracel Islands, and we will invite partner navies to join.
More specifically, he can let his guest know that any move to militarize the Scarborough Shoal, off the Philippine coast, will result in a constant U.S. naval presence and the provision of significant arms sales to regional states. It’s possible that none of these policies will succeed in change Beijing’s own calculations, but they will let Trump set a baseline for Sino–U.S. relations over the next four years.
They may also slow down China’s momentum and force Xi to consider just how adversarial a relationship he wants with the United States while his own economy continues to slow down dramatically.
First impressions among world leaders make a difference. Ronald Reagan put Mikhail Gorbachev on the defensive, a position from which he never recovered. John F. Kennedy’s seeming weakness encouraged Nikita Khrushchev to build the Berlin Wall and put nuclear missiles in China.
Donald Trump needs to send a message that he takes seriously the necessity of getting relations with China right, for U.S. interests above all.
Source: National Review