As long as Donald Trump remains in power, a unique kind of dichotomy will exist in China-U.S. relations for a long time, because the U.S. wants to uphold its ideal of “America First” without having to disappoint its allies, and it wants to improve China-U.S. relations without losing its influence in the Asia-Pacific region. America’s dichotomous attitudes toward China, in turn, result in a renewed dichotomy in the world order; the determining factor here is the fact that Trump is at once a businessman and a president. Once we grasp this fact, we will have a good foundation on which to base an overall clear analysis of China-U.S. relations.
The dichotomy in China-U.S. relations, along with the American interests that dichotomy reflects, is clearly shown in America’s recent series of actions toward China. During the Xi-Trump meeting, Trump was friendly to China. But when the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore was imminent, the U.S. Navy entered the South China Sea for the first time since Trump took office.* Most recently, Trump issued a flurry of public accusations against China for the way North Korea’s nuclear threats were handled. All these are examples of America’s contradictory attitudes toward China-U.S. relations.
Representing America’s major military forces, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Francis Dunford Jr. and Scott Swift, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, were all present in Singapore. It seems that America intended to emphasize its long-standing Asia-Pacific strategies, including providing protection to its Asia-Pacific allies, which hadn’t changed much, despite Trump’s slogan of “Make America Great Again” and the rising unilateralism in the United States. However, the Shangri-La Dialogue, a war of words, and Trump’s announcement of America’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement both became headlines during the summit. The old boss of the world, having promised to protect everyone, quit just like that, for no one’s benefit but its own. Trump’s words left behind a trail of questions for America’s allies, which didn’t seem urgent but couldn’t be ignored: Is the U.S. taking any responsibility at all in maintaining our regional security? Will we still be able to ride on the coattails of America’s growth in power?
These are, in fact, difficult questions that many countries have to face. Because Trump is a businessman as well as a president, America today is displaying dichotomous features, bringing a similarly new kind of dichotomy into the world order. Consequently, the world seems baffled. Any country, big or small, will need to be prepared for good and bad, one hand ready for a candy and the other ready for a big stick. Whether America tosses a candy or wields a stick is all guided by its own interests.
The Dichotomy Reflected in the South China Sea Disputes
In his speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue on June 3, the Defense Secretary Mattis lectured his audience on the importance of the rule of law on the sea, and criticized China for reclaiming land and arming the man-made islands in the South China Sea.
Lt. Gen. He Lei, vice president of the Academy of Military Science of the Chinese People's Liberation Army, responded to a succession of questions from Mattis and the Australian prime minister before him. Not naming names, He Lei expressed China’s and the Chinese people’s firm opposition to the close-in reconnaissance activities in Chinese waters and in related air space near China’s islands by military planes and vessels from a certain country.
Although China reiterated its position on the South China Sea disputes when the leaders of China and the U.S. met at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate, issues revolving around the South China Sea apparently remained at the center of China-U.S. disputes. A U.S. Navy officer believed that the South China Sea disputes between China and the U.S. were structural. On the one hand, Southeast Asia is the ideal source of resources for China to feed its large population; on the other hand, America has many trade ties in the region. Therefore, both sides would endeavor to protect their own interests in a dispute.
With regard to the South China Sea disputes, economic interests aside, China and the U.S. are taking the opportunity to flex their military muscles. In addition to Mattis’ speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue, America disclosed prior to the summit that there had been confrontation in the South China Sea waters between Chinese and U.S. military aircraft, which could very well be intended to vamp up the Shangri-La Dialogue. At the end of May, a U.S. Navy P-3 surveillance plane entered air space near Hong Kong from the South China Sea, and two J-10 fighter jets from the Chinese PLA went up to intercept it. This caused controversy over the two countries’ military tussle. The former director of Research Office No. 2 in the Department of World Military Research in the Chinese Academy of Military Science, Major-General Yao Yunzhu, who was present at the Shangri-La Dialogue, said that China and the U.S. often had military disputes over the South China Sea. Why did the U.S. pick this time to disclose them?
According to Li Mingjiang, associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, one possibility could be that the American military plane chose a time that would prove to be sensitive for China and then disclosed the incident in line with the severity of friction between the two countries, using the media and public opinion to pressure China. One could also say it was a kind of reaction by America to such incidents. Another possibility could be related to the timing of events. One particular time might have been better than another for an incident or activity to take place, and the timing of this incident might have been connected with a good opportunity, which in this case could have been related to the Shangri-La Dialogue. I’d place my bet on the Dialogue, Mingjiang said, because without these incidents, the Dialogue wouldn’t have had as many topics to focus on, which might have created the sense that there was no direction.
The U.S. needed this Dialogue as a platform to appease its Asia-Pacific allies. The Shangri-La Dialogue was organized by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British think tank, but in effect it was sponsored by the Singaporean government, in particular its Ministry of Defense. Since it has been customary for Singapore to rely on the U.S. for its security, it wouldn’t be hard to infer that the Shangri-La Dialogue has provided the main arena in which America could promote its world military strategy in the Asia-Pacific region. This year’s Shangri-La Dialogue was unique for several reasons. It was said that Trump might cut military spending; he also claimed during the presidential election campaign that he was determined to ask Japan and South Korea to cover their full share of the expenses for the American troops stationed there; and at the Dialogue, Trump announced the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement. All these developments made many of America’s Asia-Pacific allies feel insecure and uneasy. At the Dialogue, many member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, who normally rely on the U.S. for security, raised their antennas to receive critical signals, trying to capture exactly what the U.S. wants.
Mattis’ speech covered three areas: North Korea, China and America’s alliance system in the Asia-Pacific region. Although Mattis’ speech on the whole was consistent with previous U.S. policies, Yao Yunzhu pointed out there was one new thing worth noticing, emphasizing the fact that America’s allies and partners are increasing their own military capabilities. In the past, American representatives would usually talk about working with their regional partners after they finished talking about their allies, Yao said. However, in Mattis’ speech, apart from emphasizing America’s continued collaboration with its allies and regional partners, he also stressed that the U.S. would help these countries to improve their military capabilities. To borrow an old Chinese saying, in addition to handing over the fish, America will also teach them how to fish. America’s established strategy has always been to continue helping its allies, so it is a path that Trump, as a politician, cannot avoid taking. But in helping the allies improve their military capabilities, Trump is showing his shrewdness as a businessman, since the stronger America’s allies become, the less money the big boss will have to pay and the more profit it will realize.
Indeed, the allies have picked up the signal. The Shangri-La Dialogue was meaningful, said General Abu Belal Muhammad Shafiul Huq, chief of army Staff of the Bangladesh Army, adding that Mattis’ speech was reassuring on the South China Sea issues. Bangladesh is a populous country with steady economic development and good prospects, so a strong military for the country’s security is crucial for economic development. America gave us a clear signal about security at the Dialogue.
The Dichotomy in the Way the US Handled North Korea’s Nuclear Problem and Issues around the Middle East
At the Asia security summit in Singapore, Mattis said that North Korea had accelerated its nuclear weapons program and missile tests, and that its nuclear threats were a “clear and present danger” which needed to be stopped. Mattis called for China to use its influence on the country, to work closely with the international community and to “aim for the denuclearized Korean peninsula.” He said he believed that China would eventually understand that this was their responsibility.
Not long ago, America said it would seek denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula through tougher economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure on North Korea. America will keep an open mind to meeting the objective through negotiations, but it will also be prepared to protect its own safety as well as that of its allies.
At Mar-a-Lago, Chinese and U.S. leaders held talks focusing on North Korea’s nuclear problem. On this subject, China reiterated its firm position on denuclearization on the peninsula, maintaining peace and stability on the peninsula and resolving issues through dialogue and negotiation. China will continue enforcing the United Nations Security Council’s resolution on the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. In search of a breakthrough to re-open the negotiation process, China explained its “dual-track” approach of “suspension for suspension” for resolving North Korea’s nuclear issues, the two tracks being (1) denuclearization on the Korean peninsula and (2) building a peace mechanism on the peninsula. In its “suspension for suspension” approach, China calls for a simultaneous freeze on North Korean nuclear and missile tests, and military exercises by the United States and South Korea.
China also reiterated its opposition to the deployment by the U.S. of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system in South Korea. China and the U.S. reaffirmed their commitment to denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and agreed to communicate regularly and work together closely on issues revolving around the peninsula.
On North Korea’s nuclear issues, America hopes that China will work harder to restrain North Korea and at the same time reduce economic support to the country. On the other hand, America will work with its allies to increase pressure on North Korea through, for example, the deployment of the THAAD system. However, according to Yonhap News Agency, the Blue House in South Korea just announced suspension of the THAAD system and confirmed “a full-blown environmental impact assessment” to be conducted before full deployment of THAAD. The Blue House made it clear that the two THAAD launchers and other equipment that were already in place would not be withdrawn, but “those that have yet to be deployed will have to wait.”
On the other hand, South Korea’s economy has been under tremendous pressure. Analysis shows that in 1990, South Korea’s trade with China totaled only $2.8 billion, not even one-tenth of its trade with the U.S. However, in 2015, the volume of import and export between China and South Korea reached $227.4, 16.6 percent of South Korea’s gross domestic product. In contrast, the trade volume between the U.S. and South Korea in 2015 was merely $113.8 billion,** which was 8.3 percent of South Korea’s GDP. The total trade volume between China and South Korea has grown to be twice the volume between the U.S. and South Korea. Economically, South Korea relies most heavily on China, but in terms of security, it relies on the United States. This is a key factor for America to consider when handling North Korea’s nuclear problem.
On North Korea’s nuclear issues, America leans toward not changing the government in power, because,since handling the issues of the Middle East, America has learned the thorny consequences of changing governments. Therefore, when Trump visited the Middle East for the first time, apart from the arms deal worth $110 billion between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, which took immediate effect, the two countries could also make arms deals that would amount to as much as $350 billion over the next 10 years. This is a gigantic gift, a gigantic piece of candy. Some European media ridiculed Trump, describing him kowtowing to the King of Saudi Arabia. But this is the true color of a businessman and shouldn’t come as a surprise. This is just like Trump, when in Israel, reiterating America’s close relations with the country.
In his speech to Muslim leaders in Saudi Arabia, Trump picked on Tehran in particular, claiming that it “has fueled the fires of sectarian conflict and terror,” and calling for the Gulf countries to “drive out the terrorists and drive out the extremists.” On the one hand, he sought to repair ties with the Arab countries through business and ceremonies as well as increasing arms deals; on the other hand, he maintained a tough stance on Iran. Out of business interests, Trump’s performance in the Middle East has been a vivid demonstration of the dichotomy in America’s diplomacy where friends and foes are made at the same time.
Whether it is North Korea’s nuclear problem or issues in the Middle East, China has proven to be indispensable. Therefore, in order to solve these problems, Trump cannot afford to be too harsh on China, even though they are two fundamentally different countries. Meanwhile, America has to reassure its allies that it is still the boss.
The Issue of Taiwan as a Bargaining Chip in China-US Relations
In the presence of Chinese PLA officials, Mattis made an unusual statement that the U.S. Department of Defense “remains steadfastly committed to working with Taiwan and with its democratic government to provide it the defense articles necessary, consistent with the obligations set out in the Taiwan Relations Act, because we stand for the peaceful resolution of any issues in a manner acceptable to the people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.”
In the past 15 Shangri-La Dialogues, the issue of Taiwan was never mentioned on its own by any official spokesperson in any formal speech. But this time, Mattis deliberately brought it up, catching some of the Chinese delegates off guard. Zhang Lu, an associate research fellow at the Chinese PLA Academy of Military Science, said that the Chinese delegates immediately questioned the American side on Taiwan. In response, Mattis promptly reiterated that America would abide by the “One China” policy. This, however, needs to be tested over time. This might have been a deliberate move by the American side, and its intention may be revealed over time; it might also have been an important card played by the American government. Yao Yunzhu said the issue of Taiwan has historically been one of the cards America plays in its relations with China. “I feel it was very unusual that Mattis raised the issue at the Dialogue, but when questioned, he stressed that the U.S. would adhere to the One China policy,” said Zhang Ye from the Chinese PLA Academy of Military Science, “so his real intention depends on how the U.S. interacts with Taiwan next; but I think he made the wrong comment, because it might mislead Taiwan into making wrong decisions, as Tsai Ing-wen has always wanted to drag America into the issue. A previous speech by Trump kept her quiet for a while, but Mattis’ message this time might have some negative effects.”
In dramatic contrast to the Chinese delegates, some delegates from the U.S. and Britain felt that Mattis’ mention of the issue of Taiwan might not be a big problem. Didn’t he immediately reiterate the One China policy when questioned?
As we all know, Mattis was the first person confirmed as a member of President Trump’s Cabinet, and he is a general that Trump favored and made an exception to promote. According to U.S. law, a retired officer cannot become the defense secretary until he’s been out of uniform for at least seven years. It has been only three years since Mattis left the battlefield. Mattis is Trump’s favorite, not only because Mattis was held in high regard in the military, but also because he openly criticized the Obama administration’s policies on the Middle East, and in particular, on Iran. Therefore, when Mattis gave his speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue, he followed his script instead of speaking extemporaneously, and his mention of Taiwan was by no means accidental. Some delegates felt that by bringing up the issue of Taiwan, Mattis might have displeased Trump as it might not have been previously communicated to the White House.
Defense Department officials also felt that the analysis of the Taiwan issue by some of America’s interest groups and their connection with Taiwan would more or less influence Trump’s attitudes toward the situation across the Taiwan Strait and his subsequent decisions, because among these interest groups, some were members of Congress and some were part of pro-Trump think-tanks, all of whom have complicated ties with Taiwan of one kind or another, like the intertwining roots of trees.
Even if one phone call, made when Trump was still new in the Oval Office, didn’t represent his overall attitude toward the issue of Taiwan, he has had about six months to learn about the issue. During the Mar-a-Lago meeting especially, China reiterated its principals on the issues of Taiwan and the independence of Tibet, and expressed hope that America, adhering to the three joint communiqués between China and the U.S. and the One China policy, would handle the situation with care and avoid disrupting China-U.S. relations. After the meeting at the Mar-a-Lago estate, Trump changed his position and supported the One China policy. This shows that as a businessman, Trump is quick to learn and adapt.
The Trump administration is now very clear that the issue of Taiwan is China’s bottom line, and an untouchable one. Trump also understands that Taiwan’s political, economic and military capabilities are no match for those of mainland China. Moreover, having understood China’s determination to unify Taiwan, the Trump administration is paying more attention to the issue, even bringing it to the table. This reflects to a greater degree the businessman nature of the Trump administration and its clear preparedness to negotiate.
Additionally, Trump has also learned that Taiwan is China’s sore spot, so now there is no distance that the U.S. will not go to increase its bet. The direct mention of Taiwan immediately followed by reiteration of the One China policy at this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue made it clear that America doesn’t wish to cause damage to China-U.S. relations, but that it still wants to reassure Taiwan and not to miss an opportunity to strike a big deal. This is what you get when a businessman goes into politics. He will go straight for his goals, trying to hit many birds with one stone. What’s important is this question: In China-U.S. relations, what does America really want to gain from using Taiwan as a bargaining chip? However China plans to handle the issue of Taiwan, it seems impossible to overlook the “all-interfering auntie” that is the United States. When faced with a businessman-turned-president, should we buy him off or scare him off? Dear reader, what do you think?
Trump, the ordinary-citizen-turned-president, from time to time has shocked America, even the world. With shots fired one after another and bullets flying in midair, the public does not find it easy to grasp an overview of his policies. This is the refrain of the Trump era in America. Many look forward to a new world order after the reshuffling or overturning of traditions, but, unfortunately, the situation is all the more bewildering, just like Trump’s personality, background and inconsistent behavior, with all sides vying for interests in America, like the White House and the Pentagon, and America’s wrestling with other countries for power, especially with China. Seemingly contradictory events and phenomena will still dominate the landscape of international relations. What is being tested here is one’s ability to adapt to change and to take control.
The author is a Hong Kong-based scholar.
*Editor’s note: The Shangri-La Dialogue is a summit of defense professionals in the Asia-Pacific region sponsored by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, founded in the U.K. in 1958.
**Translator’s note: The source text is 113.8 billion “yuan”, which the translator believes is a typographical error. Considering the context, the translator believes it should still be “meiyuan,” which means “U.S. dollars.”