Manoj Joshi: China's looking at its Trump card
An erratic US president, with a poor grasp of policy, can give Beijing a free run not only in South-east Asia, but Central and West Asia as well
Donald Trump features on a magazine’s cover at a news stand in Shanghai. Trump has upset Beijing by questioning the US policy on Taiwan. Pic/AFP
The unusual run-in that President-elect Donald Trump has had with China is a matter of great concern and should not be ignored. It began with a phone call to Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen on December 2, breaking the protocol that had operated for 37 years, when no US president had spoken to his Taiwanese counterpart.
US scholar Oriana Mastro notes in a blog post that the call could well have been unintentional, but typical of Trump, he resorted to bluster in defending the call, asking whether China had asked the US “if it was OK to devalue their currency, heavily tax our products going into their country or to build a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea? I don’t think so.”
On Saturday and Sunday, the world watched bemused as Trump lashed out at China for seizing an American drone that was doing some hydrographic/surveillance work on the high seas off China. After criticising China for stealing the drone, Trump raised the ante by declaring that China could keep it, thus, blocking an easy resolution to the issue. Trump’s signaling on China is unpredictable. Earlier in the month, he appointed Terry Branstead, the governor of Iowa as the Ambassador to China. Branstead has excellent ties in China reaching up to Xi Jinping.
Speaking at the Halifax Security Forum several weeks ago, US Pacific Commander Admiral Harry Harris observed that “Capability x Resolve = deterrence”. The element of resolve seems to be missing in the US responses to Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea. Obama admin’s weak response is underscored by the fact that the drone was captured in Philippine’s exclusive economic zone and outside even the so-called nine-dash line that China claims as a maritime border. With the TPP dead in the water, a key weapon in the Obama administration’s ‘pivot’ to Asia appears to have lost steam. Its policy seems confined to rotating F-22 fighters through the region.
China is not unaware that it was the period in the wake of Nine Eleven, when the US was focused on Iraq and then Afghanistan, that it had an unchallenged rise in the South-east Asian region. It was aided by the 2008 economic melt-down which the Chinese handled well with their massive stimulus to enhance their relative standing in the world system. Even so, as a country that is simultaneously a great power and a rising one, it needs to ensure that the old super-power is not hostile to it.
The Trump presidency could offer a period of opportunity. An erratic president, with a poor grasp of policy could stumble in a range of areas, giving Beijing a free run not only in South-east Asia, but Central and West Asia as well. On the other hand, notwithstanding the rhetoric, it could be that Trump is softening Beijing for a deal.
China is not the kind of country to get into a deal due to pressure or in a hurry. It is quite capable of pushing its interest in a long-term framework and battening down the hatches while waiting out the Trump era. On the other hand, it could cause considerable trouble for the US through its linkages in Afghanistan, Central Asia and Iran. But with a slowing economy, there are domestic compulsions for Xi Jinping not to get locked into a confrontation with the US.
Dealing with China is an extremely complex issue. The Chinese world view is very different from that of the US and its allies, and its policy-making process quite opaque. The Trump style disdains complexity, but unless Trump reveals some of the genius of Ronald Reagan, simplistic answers to complex issues will pose great danger to the global order.
As outlined in his campaign, it would appear that hostility to Islamist radicalism, rather than China, forms his core belief. In this, he sees Israel as his close ally and the battle to come in civilisational terms. In line with this, Russia is part of the solution, rather than a problem. There are other indicators suggesting that his focus will remain in the Middle-East — the nomination of retired generals like Mike Flynn as NSA and James Mattis, former Centcom chief, as Secretary of Defense.
If this is so, don’t be surprised if Trump is willing to cut a deal with China along the lines of the “New Type of Great Power Relations” mooted by Xi Jinping in his first meeting with Obama in Sunnylands in 2013. Xi’s view involved (1) no conflict or confrontation, and treating each other’s strategic intentions objectively; (2) mutual respect, including for each other’s core interests and major concerns; and (3) mutually beneficial cooperation, by abandoning the zero-sum game mentality and advancing areas of mutual interest.
In geopolitical terms, this could mean Trump reverting to the American position on Taiwan and accepting Chinese primacy in the South China Sea. The problem is trying to understand what the Chinese would be willing to offer the US in exchange. Let’s be clear, Trump the businessman, is unlikely to offer a free lunch.
The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
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