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Sino-US relations and Trump’s Asia policy

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Sporadic tensions and volatility are not new in Sino-American relations. Both major powers diverge on a wide range of geopolitical and strategic issues such as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system deployment in South Korea and the management of the North Korean nuclear issue.

In the run-up to Donald Trump’s inauguration as 45th President of the United States, China and the United States have seen premature confrontation on two other sensitive issues that may continue to endure under a Trump presidency: the Taiwan issue and the South China Sea (SCS) disputes. Trump’s controversial phone conversation with Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen upended the status quo in cross-strait relations and put into question the United States’ commitment to the One China policy, which China deems a nonnegotiable core interest.

In responding to China’s evocation of the long-standing concordat, Trump resorted to “Twitter diplomacy” in stepping up invectives against China’s currency manipulation and construction of a “massive military complex” in the SCS. He also criticized China for taxing hefty fines on American goods, which has contributed to the large American trade deficit.

Noticeably, not long after the unprecedented phone call, China was quick to demonstrate its resolve in averting a possible Taiwan Strait Crisis 3.0 and in responding to Trump’s provocations: nuclear-capable bombers (轰/H-6K) were flown near Taiwan; an unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) of the US Navy was seized; the aircraft carrier group Liaoning (辽宁舰/CV-16) conducted its first live-fire exercise in the Bohai Sea; and weapons in the artificial islands in the SCS were installed. Trump’s unsettling remarks are not alone and have been accompanied by that of his cabinet appointees. For instance, Trump’s Secretary of Defense, James “Mad Dog” Mattis, commented that China is “shredding trust along its periphery” in responding to Beijing’s securitization of the SCS, while Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, proposed that China should be barred access to its artificial islands in the SCS.

Trump’s Foreign Policy

With Trump formally US President, signs are much clearer that he is being true to his campaign promises. In his inaugural speech, he unsurprisingly reaffirmed his consistent campaign battle cry of “Make America Great Again.”

Trump’s foreign policy orientation may be examined by looking into his electoral promises and recent policy directions.

First, Trump’s resonant mantra suggests that he is not satisfied with the current order of things and is conscious of revitalizing US economic standing; and accordingly, of US economic power and dominance. For Trump, to make America great again is by putting “America First” on all issues, especially in the economic realm. This means lesser consideration for strategic commitments abroad and the avoidance of entanglements that strain American resources and divert issues from domestic priorities.

Second, Trump is patently clear on his economic, ideological, and strategic agenda.

Economically, Trump redefines US economic and trade strategy through protectionism and what he calls “smart trade.” The former is by slapping heavy fines on companies that do not employ American labor or reinstate jobs on American soil. The latter is through indifference to mega-free trade deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the North American Free Trade Area (NAFTA), and opting instead for bilateral trade agreements. Furthermore, by Trump treating Taiwan as a “bargaining chip” to draw economic concessions from China, economics apparently precedes politics. Hence, politics is a means to economic ends, that is, the achievement of American economic interests. One should thus not be surprised if this also holds true in the case of the SCS.

Ideologically, Trump’s discourse is a sharp departure from previous US foreign policy rhetoric. Trump has shifted the terms of discussion from the US preaching as the leader of the free world and principal advocate of liberal internationalism, to matters that support American economic and trade interests.

In his inaugural address, Trump also reiterated that the United States would not impose its values — such as human rights and democracy — on other countries. This apparently heralds a “post-liberal” era or a less interventionist (selective isolationism) role for the US in the domestic affairs of other states. In other words, Trump is disinterested in maintaining a liberal international order founded on liberal democratic values. This augurs well for Southeast Asian countries such as Cambodia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Vietnam, whom were all denounced by the Obama administration to have violated certain democratic principles. The reduction of values emphasis, however, may come at the long-term strategic cost of American soft power and ideological alignment with key allies.

Strategically, Trump did not mince words in wanting to have a “great rebuilding” of the US Armed Forces, which includes an upsized Navy and an enhanced nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities. Specifically, Trump wants to engage in the largest defense investment since the 1990s and expand the US Navy’s current number of 308 ships to 350 ships. This complements the 2016 Naval Force Structure Assessment (FSA) to have a 355-ship fleet including 12 carriers, 104 large surface combatants, 52 small surface combatants, 38 amphibious ships, and 66 submarines.

Therefore, the plan of the Obama administration to transfer 60 percent of American naval assets from the Atlantic to the Pacific by 2020, as part of the Rebalance to Asia, may yet be far from over.

American Exceptionalism and Pax Sinica

The United States has always prided itself as a country that is a “City on a Hill,” beacon of democracy, and the provider of public goods and global leadership. By repeatedly making statements such as “Make America Great Again” and “America First,” Trump is still treading along traditional US foreign policy lines of being the “greatest” and most “powerful” country in the world. This is also indicative that Trump wants to arrest the so-called “American decline” and maintain American pre-eminence and supremacy.

The way he wants this to be achieved is not through the expansion of democratic zones around the world, but to keep hold of an international order where America continues to enjoy superpower status. This, essentially, makes the renunciation of American spheres of influence remote, especially when taking into account national strategic goods and valuable bases of power.

Trump’s exercise of leadership will be a crucial factor in terms of directing the future of Sino-US relations, particularly the continued American interaction toward a rising China. For example, it remains to be seen how the Trump administration will be receptive to China’s “New Model of Major Country Relations” (新型大国关系), which has two major goals: maintain a cooperative agenda while constructively managing differences with the US and to disprove the “Thucydides Trap” and the “Tragedy of Great Power Politics,” which both forewarn disastrous conflict for transitioning great powers.

With respect to policies toward Asia, continued US preference for networked alliances and military force posturing would, in one way or another, have to square against China’s regional security vision of comprehensive security (综合安全), cooperative security (合作安全), common security (共同安全), and sustainable security (可持续安全) as stated in the Chinese White Paper China’s Policies on Asia-Pacific Security Cooperation (中国的亚太安全合作政策), which all emphasize nonintervention from extra-regional powers and a non-alliance-based regional architecture.

Aaron Jed Rabena
Aaron Jed Rabena is an Associate Fellow at the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations (PCFR) and is a member of the Asia Society Philippines. The views expressed are the author's own and do not reflect that of his affiliated institutions. He can be reached at aaronrabena@gmail.com.
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