Trump's approach to China breaks from tradition, may yield results

Trump's approach to China breaks from tradition, may yield results
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As President Trump’s plane descended into Beijing airport, the American press was focused on a group of kleptocratic American basketball players and how the Chinese government would treat shoplifters.

Instead of focusing on what could really be achieved in President Trump’s first state visit to China, attention was turned to comparisons of how North Korea and China treat prisoners.

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If we step back from that diversion, however, we can see that this is a crucial time for U.S. foreign policy overall and U.S.-China relations specifically.

 

President Trump has scuttled plans for the United States to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership and much of his appeal as a candidate was his promise to reduce China’s enormous trade surplus with the U.S. Will he achieve that goal?

It doesn’t appear so at present; but, before we answer that question, it is worth trying to put the Trump administration’s approach to China in context.

President Trump has broken the mold established since the Nixon-Kissinger visits in the early 1970s. Instead of having an elaborately choreographed series of meetings, the Trump approach has been to emphasize his personal relationship with China’s President, Xi Jinping.

Although President Obama tried for relaxed discussions during the 2013 Rancho Mirage, California summit, Trump has placed his personal links to Xi front and center as a way to get results, not just to produce a relaxed atmosphere.

Thus, we have, in essence, three different American approaches to high-level meetings with China.

The Kissinger variant is to emphasize “national interests” and to seek some kind of “grand bargain” where Washington and Beijing would each agree to avoid challenging vital interests of the other party. For example, this might mean sacrificing a U.S. objective in Asia to get China to limit certain activities in the Western hemisphere.

Although eminently rational, the “grand bargain” approach founders with idealists who believe that Western values are universal and that democracies shouldn’t make major compromises with authoritarian governments. Throughout the Obama administration, China tried to establish “a special relationship” with the U.S. but decision-makers in Washington rejected the overtures.

As an alternative, the Obama approach to China might be termed “intellectual persuasion.” President Obama spent dozens of hours trying to convince Presidents Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping that it was in China’s interest to: adopt a realistic exchange rate for the yuan; inhibit North Korea’s nuclear weapons program; and establish strict emission standards for greenhouse gases.

Although China did let the yuan appreciate and is now a supporter of the Paris environmental accords, it is clear that there has been only limited progress on the North Korean nuclear issue.

In fact, a 2013 Reuters comment, before the Rancho Mirage, Obama-Xi meeting, read as follows: “The two leaders are likely to discuss ways to apply pressure on North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program after a period of bellicose rhetoric and threats from Pyongyang.”

So, it is legitimate for President Trump to say that past American efforts with the Chinese regarding North Korea have been ineffective.

Will the Trump approach work? In addition, will Trump’s various accolades for Xi add up to a strategy?

Despite a great deal of skepticism from the American policy community, under Trump, there have been two small steps forward from China on North Korea: Beijing has voted against North Korea in the United Nations Security Council; and China has tightened up its export controls on some vital commodities that it has traditionally supplied to North Korea.

So, will Trump’s flattery of Xi prove effective? Probably not, unless President Trump is willing to threaten China’s vital exports to the U.S. Yet, the irony is that neither the Kissinger grand bargain nor the Obama case by case approach has gotten any large number of supporters either.

One element that should be emphasized is that there actually does appear to be an element of strategy in Trump’s approach: He is gradually drawing China into a tougher stance on North Korea, and that may make it easier for President Xi to put greater pressure on Pyongyang.  

Also, by holding off on dealing with China’s bilateral trade surplus, President Trump is preserving his strongest cards for last. So, while the press is talking about shoplifting and Trump’s effusive comments to Xi, there may actually be a foundation for a long-term strategy in the making.

David Denoon is professor of politics and economics at New York University. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (London), the Asia Society and the U.S.-Indonesia Society.