The opening of the Group of 20 summit of leading rich and developing nations, which is being held in Osaka, Japan, marks 40 years since the resumption of diplomatic relations between the United States and China in 1979 during President Jimmy Carter’s administration. On this current occasion, President Carter, who succeeded in containing China, sent a letter to President Donald Trump explaining his experience dealing with China. Will Trump take Carter’s advice when he meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Japan? Will last century’s approach to China work in today’s multipolar world?*
It’s clear that former President Carter’s strategy for dealing with China was based on two principles: first, encouraging China to open its doors to the outside world in exchange for support for the Chinese economy, which began growing at a rate of 10% annually, an economic miracle by all measures; second, pushing China to respect human rights gradually by not creating public problems. Carter takes pride in the fact he succeeded in handling the Chinese through unannounced diplomatic backchannels.
Although many in Washington agree that President Carter’s advice for President Trump does not match up with the threats of today, there are some who, at the very least, support some of his ideas for dealing with China. In his letter, President Carter called on President Trump to focus on building infrastructure instead of starting wars. In Africa, Washington could cooperate rather than compete with China in the resource-rich continent. According to some, however, China in 2019 is not China circa 1979. There are Chinese threats to U.S. national security as well as Washington’s allies in Asia. For this reason, President Barack Obama’s administration made a “pivot to Asia” in 2012. Likewise, President Trump announced just last year that Russia and China are Washington’s main competitors in the international arena. So, what aspects of U.S. policy will President Trump present to his Chinese counterpart at the G-20?
U.S. strategy for dealing with China is based on undermining the Chinese economy. This strategy has succeeded in reducing the growth rate in recent years, reaching 6.9% in 2018, China’s lowest rate of growth since 1990. The U.S. has also successfully created political problems between China and its neighbors around sovereign rights, militarization and artificial islands in the South China Sea, through which two-thirds of global trade pass each year. This has increased the cost of insuring and shipping Chinese goods, which has raised the competitiveness of U.S. goods and reduced the growth of the Chinese economy. President Trump believes that his country stands to gain from any trade war with China because Chinese exports to the U.S. total $650 billion annually, whereas U.S. exports don’t exceed $150 billion. That means there’s a $400 billion trade deficit in China’s favor.
If both countries continue imposing tariffs, China will certainly suffer greater losses in accounting terms; however, the Trump administration is overlooking the dangers its trade war poses to global growth. It may lead to an economic slowdown or even a depression, a burden which all countries – including rich countries themselves – must bear. That said, the military and political aspects of President Trump’s China strategy may be the most dangerous.
President Trump already withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and may not renew the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in order to force China to join these agreements, which were originally bilateral in nature, negotiated between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union. The most frightening aspect of this is U.S.-Chinese talk this month about the possibility of a military dispute between Washington and Beijing in Asia in response to the U.S. providing arms to Taiwan and Hong Kong. According to Beijing, both Taiwan and Hong Kong are included in its “One China” policy.
Yes, U.S. strategy has weakened Chinese economic growth, but many in Washington are calling on President Trump to follow President Carter’s advice for dealing with China: instead of direct confrontation with Beijing, create a conflict between China and India and make sure Russia does not become China’s partner.
*Editor’s note: The 2019 G-20 Osaka summit took place on June 28-29. This article was published a day prior to the meeting, but the editors feel its perspective remains relevant.