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  • China-U.S. Relations during the Trump Administration:Mixed Signals, Increased Risks
  • Xie Tao (bio)

Whether you hold a crystal ball passed down from Thucydides or are trained in the offensive realist tradition, your predictions about the future of China-U.S. relations will probably be the same: the two great powers are destined for war.

For those who are skeptical of historical analogies or the practical value of theoretical models, however, the Chinese leadership offers a dose of optimism. Beijing has consistently reassured the international community that it is firmly committed to peaceful development. Most importantly, Chinese president Xi Jinping in 2014 called on his American counterpart to jointly work toward a new model of major-country relations characterized by "non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation."1

Xi now has a new White House occupant to reassure. Despite his frequent criticism of China during the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump the candidate actually had a big following in China. One telltale sign of his popularity was that there were several unabashedly pro-Trump microblogs on Sina Weibo (a Chinese social media tool that combines functions of Twitter and Facebook). In addition to the Trump Fan Club, there were Trump the Great Man from Heaven and Trump Goes to the White House, each boasting thousands of followers.2

The title of an op-ed published in the New York Times shortly after Trump's electoral win in November, "How Trump Is Good for China," perhaps best captured the prevailing optimism among many Chinese officials and analysts. Although the author predicted that "relations may nose-dive in the short run over trade," he argued that "in the long term, [End Page 5] Mr. Trump's America and China are more likely to work with each other than in any other period in recent memory."3

Half a year into the Trump presidency, is it time to dismiss ominous predictions as alarmist or Chinese optimism as premature? What will be the most salient short-term and long-term issues for this bilateral relationship? This essay first examines the uneven start to China-U.S. relations during the Trump administration before assessing four key issues for the two countries: North Korea, the South China Sea, democracy in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and the responsibilities of global leadership.

Mixed Signals

Even before Trump was sworn in, there were worrisome signs that China-U.S. relations would almost certainly have a bumpy road ahead. Early last December, he took a congratulatory phone call from the Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen, an unprecedented move that raised widespread alarm in both Beijing and Washington. Three weeks later, Trump nominated Peter Navarro—a longtime harsh critic of China's trade practices as well as the author of the sensational book and film Death by China—to be the head of the newly created National Trade Council. About two weeks before his inauguration, Trump chastised China for failing to rein in North Korea's nuclear programs.

Just as most observers of China-U.S. relations were buckling up for a sharp downturn, President Trump seemed to have a sudden change of mind. On April 6, he hosted President Xi at Mar-a-Lago, where they agreed to, among other things, a 100-day action plan to advance bilateral economic cooperation. A little more than a month later, the two sides released a ten-part trade deal as the initial results of that action plan.

A week after his meeting with Xi, Trump announced that his administration would not designate Beijing a currency manipulator, reversing his arguably best-known campaign promise regarding China. In a late April interview, he unequivocally rejected Tsai's suggestion for another phone call on the grounds that Xi was trying his best to pressure North Korea. On June 20, he sent out a tweet to show his appreciation of Xi's efforts to help with Pyongyang. This sequence of events, plus Trump's tweets and remarks, strongly suggests that he and Xi struck a bargain at Mar-a-Lago—that is, the former would offer concessions on currency, [End Page 6] trade, and Taiwan, and the latter would reciprocate with efforts...


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