On Jan. 20, Trump formally took office as the 45th president of the United States of America. China and the U.S. have now entered a new period of upheaval, of observation and of “breaking-in” new relations.
Trump’s character is completely different from that of several previous presidents. He’s a “personality politician” who is anti-establishment, unconventional, anti-globalization, a wild card. As a result, U.S.-Sino relations will enter a period of upheaval, the common understanding that had been reached beforehand may have to be thrown out the window. The complaints, censuring, prejudice, misunderstandings and even hostility between the U.S. and China may increase. Yet both sides have, more or less, gone no further than a “war of words” rather than a war with weapons.
As Trump has a complete lack of experience with holding political office, he is a “blank page” politician. He and his team face complicated, volatile domestic and international issues, which they need to understand fully and to which they need to be able to adapt: to be able to perform a few somersaults, to be prepared to hit a few walls and to be constantly increasing their knowledge and understanding. They need to know which issues will stir up emotions and which are absolutely off-limits to them. There is a process of observation and learning between American and Chinese high-level officials: observe the level of mutual cooperation, observe what the highest common factor is and what cards each other is holding. At the same time, they also try to understand each other’s strengths and shortcomings, as well as which aspects of each other can be exploited. At this point, Trump and his team could conduct a few substantially provocative actions—such as sounding out China’s bottom line and the level and strength of responses over issues such as trade, Taiwan, the South China Sea and the Pinnacle islands. We need to be prepared.
Due to the fact that Trump is an extremely stubborn “business politician” by nature, he is skilled at weighing pros and cons. If he loses his head through material greed and doesn’t consider manufacturing costs and the price of goods and blindly rises against China, then it certainly will not just be China that suffers losses. The current situation between China and the U.S. means that if one is thriving, so the other thrives, and, likewise, if one is losing out, so does the other. China is the United States’ largest trading partner, and the U.S. is China’s second largest trading partner. By the end of 2016, trade between China and the U.S. totaled $519.6 billion. The trade of services between the U.S. and China exceeded $100 billion, and the U.S. maintained a surplus. At the same time, two-way investments have already cumulatively exceeded $17 billion. U.S.-Sino trade aids the well being of the people in both countries. In 2015, U.S.-Sino trade and two-way investments created approximately 2.6 million jobs in the U.S. and contributed $216 million to US economic growth—equivalent to 1.2 percent American GDP. Exports of Chinese products to the U.S. brought prices in America down by 1-1.5 percent. In 2015, the average American family’s income was $56,500. U.S.-Sino trade could help these families save over $850 each year. Trump should understand fully the size and power of China.
The U.S.-Sino relationship will go down one of two paths: either it will be restored and the two countries will enjoy normal relations, or the relationship will continue to slide, as will the state of affairs between the two countries. The latter, according to the people of both countries, and even according to people from all over the world, can only be bad—it cannot bring any good.
Regarding post-Trump U.S.-Sino relations, we can spare a few words to summarize. The first thought is: opportunities and challenges co-exist, and those challenges can be greater than the opportunities. The second thought is: challenges and opportunities co-exist, and those opportunities can be greater than the challenges. During Trump’s era, our strategic opportunistic period will face severe challenges and some domains will lose-out. We must be prepared for the worst and be ready to adapt. Periods of opportunity are never eternal and losing opportunities does not necessarily mean that chances have also been lost. Trump has no experience holding office—this is a chance: he can give us favorable rather than harmful opportunities. If he cannot take this opportunity to do that, then we can be the ones to create the opportunities. We must not count on Trump being good to China, but equally must not count on him mistreating China; we need to pay attention to the development opportunities that he can give us. This being the case, Trump is taking the fate of the nation as if it were a business gamble—well, we can engage him in a brave battle of wits. I believe that the intelligence of the Chinese people will not lose to an opponent.
In short, in facing the many changes of the Trump era, we must use that constant need to change and use strategic determination, and for this there are four things to say: one, observe calmly; two, remain calm and collected when responding; three, stay strong; and four, increase power. The difference between “increasing power” and “seizing opportunities” lies in the fact that the former is more actively positive: it is having control rather than being controlled. You get on with your unilateralism, we’ll get on with our multilateralism; you get on with prioritizing your country, we’ll get on with the shared destiny of mankind; you get on with closing off your country to the outside world, we’ll get on with uniting regions; you get on with shifting your problems onto others, we’ll get on with creating good neighborly relations, ensuring security for our neighbors, and bringing wealth to our neighbors; you get on with your American governance, we’ll get on with global governance; you get on with behaving unconventionally, and we’ll get on with complying with and perfecting the new global political and economic order. Comparing both sides’ levels of conception, breadth of mind, strength of distant foresight, and magnitude of gained benefits it is immediately clear: we only need to maintain confidence in our strategy and we can build a new and advantageous period of opportunity.
The author, Luo Yuan, is a member of the academic committee of the national high-level think tank PLA Academy of Military Science.