Something is at the tipping point. China and the United States: Four decades ago, Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon shook hands and the two powers renounced hostility and conflict. These were four good decades in which the whole world benefited from the sometimes warm, but always stable, relationship, most of all, probably China itself, which became the second largest economy in the world. There has always been friction, sometimes even conflict, but things never came to a head, partly because the U.S. was usually much too busy fighting other rivals or arch enemies — Russia at first, and finally Islamist terror.
It is quite possible that this is the end of an era. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said this week that the relationship between America and China is at a “pivot point.” Compared to his boss, Tillerson is extremely levelheaded and his words bear witness to a growing sense of alienation. President Donald Trump is not the only one to blame, even though his incoherent barrage against China on Twitter has left many observers perplexed.
The Bilateral Relationship Deteriorates and This Affects the Whole World
The truth is that a lot of things are happening at the same time. There is, for example, the disillusionment with China's protectionism, which runs just as deep in Europe's industrialized nations as in the U.S. There is also North Korea's development of intercontinental ballistic missiles whose nuclear warheads might one day reach the American heartland. And there is the fact that China is currently shedding its skin and reinventing itself, too: Under party and state leader Xi Jinping, the country has abandoned the restraint it once applied to foreign policy under economic reformer Deng Xiaping. At the same time, it is devoting itself to a renewal of the ideology which preaches mistrust of the West. It is unavoidable that both countries will criticize each other from now on.
This is a delicate situation, fraught with conflict, and challenging for even the smartest and most levelheaded of U.S. presidents. But now of all times, Washington is drowning in chaos and America is being governed by Trump, who, as a newcomer, stood a chance to break old patterns in the policy toward China. By now, it is not just political hardliners who think that the U.S. has been too soft and too willing to compromise with China in recent years, for example, concerning market access for Western companies or in the South China Sea. China's economy, and thereby also the Communist Party, are still dependent on the American market, its investors and know-how. Thus, America has the leverage to lure China and to win concessions.
But Trump's policy toward China is problematic in several ways. It is not the result of strategic planning, but is erratic and unpredictable. Possible allies are not consulted, but snubbed. Trump is all over the place; legitimate complaints — about protectionism or about steel dumping — are often voiced concurrently with economic nonsense — China, the alleged currency manipulator. If Trump's government is suggesting imminent sanctions against China's economy — punitive tariffs, for example — thus risking a trade war, then this comes hard on the heels of Trump's threat to punish Beijing for refusing "to solve" the North Korea issue for him. With the same chance for success, one might as well tweet that Trump should quickly solve the Middle East problem.
China certainly does not want the regime in Pyongyang to be armed with nuclear weapons. But it fears the disintegration of North Korea, and ultimately the potential of U.S. troops on its border, even more. For this reason, China will perhaps reduce coal and oil supplies to neighboring dictator Kim Jong Un, but it will never permit the one thing that would actually put an end to the nuclear program: the overthrow of Kim.
A solution this radical would require an unimaginable, radical change of heart, and this would require China's strategic trust in the cooperation, stability and reliability of the U.S., a country whose navy fleet commander in the Pacific reported last week that he would not hesitate to fire nuclear weapons at China if he received the order. There is total mistrust.
Trump's disappointment with China was predictable. What happens now is anything but. There is a lot at stake. This is the end of the quiet era for all of us.