With President-elect Trump’s inauguration around the corner, anxieties are mounting over the future of U.S.-China relations. For many observers, China’s seizure of a U.S. naval drone last month and Trump’s antagonistic rhetoric toward China signal a rocky path ahead. Yet fears of military escalation are likely overstated. There are numerous off-ramps available during potential crises, as well as incentives for both sides to pursue them.
On the Chinese side, foreign policy continues to exhibit controlled caution, contrary to Western media portrayals of a newly assertive China. Much of the media is bandwagoning off a viral but false “newly assertive China meme,” according to Alastair Iain Johnston, Professor of China in World Affairs at Harvard University. Johnston demonstrated in a systematic 2013 analysis that from pre- to post-2010, Chinese assertiveness across the board actually remained unchanged or was even reduced in some areas.
The single exception according to Johnston is “increased assertiveness” by China in the South China Sea, which is “perhaps triggered by more proactive efforts by other claimants.” When asked about China’s recent seizure of a U.S. naval drone and enhanced island-building, Johnston responded that these actions cause him to maintain his view that China is assertive in the South China Sea. “My assessment in 2013 of China’s assertive behavior toward maritime disputes hasn’t changed,” Johnston said, “precisely because China has continued to engage in coercive diplomacy in the South China Sea.”
However, China’s actions in the South China Sea do not necessarily portend a military conflict with the United States. China has the option to put its focus on its neighbors instead of the United States, since the United States is not a direct claimant in the maritime disputes. China took this approach recently when Trump accepted a call from President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan. China responded with rhetoric that placed blame squarely on Taiwan, labelling the call Taiwan’s “petty action,” without blaming Trump for the incident. Since China has significant economic leverage over Taiwan, China can apply pressure on the United States over the Taiwan issue indirectly through trade policies toward Taiwan. Similarly, if South China Sea tensions escalate, China might enhance economic carrots and sticks for its neighbors, such as Vietnam and the Philippines. Neighboring leaders would then feel increasingly incentivized to call for restraint in American intervention on their behalf, as was arguably the case recently with President Duterte of the Philippines.
Beyond the South China Sea and Taiwan, one flash point remains that is potentially more volatile: North Korea, according to recent evidence, may soon develop an ICBM that can hit the continental United States. Such a development would potentially cross a red line that the next U.S. administration is willing to use force to maintain. Any consequent outbreak of major fighting on the Korean peninsula may then lead to confrontation between U.S. and Chinese military forces as China moves to North Korea’s aid.
Optimists may argue that a U.S.-China military conflict over North Korea is unlikely due to a shared interest in a denuclearized North Korea. However, China could have an even greater interest in preventing the collapse of the North Korean state in the event of a U.S. military strike or crippling sanctions.
Former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea, Donald P. Gregg, agrees: “If we continue to urge China to help us impose more and more sanctions on North Korea, our ties with Beijing will suffer. The Chinese are much more worried about an implosion or explosion within North Korea than they are about Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities, which they are certain will not be used.”
Nonetheless, Gregg believes that the North Korean flash point is not inevitable.
“North Korea becomes a flash point only if we drive it into a corner by threats, sanctions and demands,” Gregg explains. “The North Koreans are not suicidal. They know that if they used any sort of nuclear weapons against us, they would be virtually obliterated. We need to talk to them, and learn to live with them.”
Given Trump’s rhetoric, however, the dialogue approach advocated by Gregg is unlikely to occur with either North Korea or China. Indeed, there is even a fear that escalation to a U.S.-China crisis could be instigated by the Trump administration. Since Trump’s national security team is incomplete, it remains uncertain how his administration would approach China. Based on developments so far, including the Tea Party and neo-conservative representation among Trump’s advisors, it seems that Trump’s administration would likely take a more hawkish stance toward China.
“A tough, coercive diplomacy toward China would be supported by the Tea Party,” said Johnston in response to a question about the effect of Tea Party influences in the Trump administration. “Neo-con hardliners might be more interested in trying to signal support for internal opposition forces in China.”
Nonetheless, Trump has demonstrated significant independence in his decision-making, so the idea of Tea Party and neo-conservative influence should not be taken too far. For Trump, domestic economic issues are the top priority. China comes in the picture mainly insofar as Trump relates U.S. manufacturing jobs to trade with China. Trump’s domestic priorities thus provide an opportunity to strike a grand bargain with China. Negotiations might, for instance, exchange Chinese trade concessions for diminished U.S. military involvement in China’s neighborhood.
China is already beginning to rebalance its economy away from exports for domestic economic reasons, which would reverse trade trajectories with the United States and create new opportunities for U.S. firms to tap into China’s massive market. Meanwhile, Trump has signaled a broadly isolationist foreign policy stance through his calls for “America First.” There is room, then, for a diplomatic bargain if Trump extracts trade concessions from China, which he can sell as a win to his supporters, while Xi acquires greater flexibility in security issues with regard to Taiwan and maritime claims, which China regards as core interests.
This is not to say that diplomacy between the two countries would be easy or that disagreements would not occur. Yet historically, bilateral relations have overcome many crises, such as the 1999 U.S. bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade and the 2001 collision between a U.S. surveillance plane and Chinese fighter jet. Relations can likewise endure beyond Trump’s administration. The possibility of striking a grand bargain, along with potential off-ramps for China and the United States with the South China Sea, Taiwan, and North Korea, offer a path toward manageable levels of tensions and a more stable relationship ahead.