By East Asia Forum Editorial Board
The conduct of US international relations has thus far been strangely insulated from the psycho-drama that has engulfed the White House since President Trump took up residence there. Perhaps that’s because of the adult supervision of Trump’s cabinet, via Rex Tillerson, James Mattis and others. But even when Trump is front and centre in summits and bilateral meetings with heads of state, the conduct of foreign affairs has been a model of measured decorum and good sense compared with the goings-on at home. Abandonment of the Trans Pacific Partnership, diminishing the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and other alliance relationships and withdrawal from the Paris Agreement were all handled with relative dignity.
Nowhere did good sense and reasonableness seem to prevail more than in managing the crucial relationship between Washington and Beijing. Trump declared Xi a fine fellow in Florida and later in Paris. The two sides got down to work on a 100-day action plan on economic problems and China agreed to increase economic pressure on North Korea in the hope of extracting concessions on the development of its nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile programmes.
This was all a world away from the election stump on which Trump had denigrated Beijing, particularly over the damage he alleged it had inflicted on the US economy. “There are people who wish I wouldn’t refer to China as our enemy. But that’s exactly what they are,” he wrote in his campaign manifesto. And one of Trump’s first post-election acts was to thumb his nose at Beijing by taking a congratulatory call from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, fuelling fears that his presidency would heighten tensions and destabilise relations in Northeast Asia and across the Pacific.
In our lead essay this week Zha Daojiong says that thus far “both Beijing and Washington see it in their interests to keep their… relationship on a stable and predictable path”. But he also warns that “what happens next is very much harder to predict”.
The surprise is not that the honeymoon between Trump and Xi might come to an end. China saw Trump as just one more American President who, although a font of anti-Chinese rhetoric on the campaign trail, would be constrained by the responsibilities and institutions of office to pursue more reasoned policies in practice. Trump’s personal and transactional approach to power and the installation of family members in the White House, also offered opportunities for the Chinese to cultivate relationships in a manner they are quite familiar with at home.
Trump’s eventual endorsement of America’s traditional one-China policy led the Chinese to believe that the old normal had been restored. Chinese expectations were low — things could have been much worse with a President Clinton, as Zha suggests — so China overestimated it’s in with Trump.
But the end of the honeymoon appears nigh. Now Trump tweets that “I am very disappointed in China. Our foolish past leaders have allowed them to make hundreds of billions of dollars a year in trade, yet… they do NOTHING for us with North Korea, just talk. We will no longer allow this to continue. China could easily solve this problem!”
If Trump really thought he could force Xi to be tough enough to bring Pyongyang to the negotiating table, he too was naïve. Although China has stepped up sanctions, it was never going to do anything that might threaten the stability of the North Korean regime unless there were a whole lot of guarantees in place that protected China’s interests on the peninsula. Trump’s understanding about what China could and would do may have been dimmed by absence of experienced advice or he may seriously believe that he can wedge Xi on North Korea without cost. As Zha makes clear, neither scenario is likely to lead to a happy result.
The end of the honeymoon does not mean that China and America are at daggers drawn. But it does present a real risk that Trump may sleepwalk into his first major international crisis.
Most importantly, the end of the honeymoon comes just as Trump is again threatening to impose tariffs on steel and other imports into America and target China on technology theft. The risks of a trade war are rising, even as mutual distrust grows over North Korea. Taiwan and the South China Sea might, as Zha says, be business as usual but growing uncertainty about trade and conflict over North Korea are of another order altogether.
The leadership and the security community in Seoul and Tokyo are already holding their collective breaths as the North Korean crisis unfolds. There is no easy way through this and both Washington and Beijing will have to back down if a way out is to be found.
The cost of military action against Kim Jong-un’s regime in Pyongyang would be huge, to civilian populations in South Korea, China and possibly Japan. Nobody recommends it as a preferred option. North Korea has carefully located its key missile launching facilities close enough to the Chinese border that taking military action against them risks embroiling China directly and makes mandatory an agreement with China on the terms of any such action in advance.
There are bargains that might be done on these and other options to resolve the North Korean problem — including a deal on tighter UN sanctions or a freeze on North Korea’s armament programmes, as China suggests, combined with direct negotiations towards converting the Korean War armistice into a permanent peace agreement between the United States and North Korea — but all of them require trust and agreement between Washington and Beijing.
(The EAF Editorial Board is comprised of Peter Drysdale, Shiro Armstrong, Ben Ascione, Amy King, Liam Gammon, Jillian Mowbray-Tsutsumi and Ben Hillman and is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy in the ANU College of Asia
and the Pacific)