Two things became clear on a nine-day trip to China, as I traveled from smoggy Beijing to glitzy Shanghai, from high-tech Shenzhen to reinvent-yourself Guangzhou in China’s southern rust belt.
First, the air pollution is as awful as its reputation. Beijing skyscrapers were nearly invisible as my plane descended and the hacking cough I acquired from pollution particles has yet to calm down.
Second, the relationship between China and the United States will become increasingly tense if President-elect Trump continues to publicly challenge Beijing without any apparent rationale behind his tweeting or broadsides. During my travels a new U.S.-Chinese contretemps erupted almost daily.
Yes, there is justification for a firmer U.S. stance toward China on trade imbalances and freedom of the seas and Beijing’s reluctance to squeeze North Korea. But berating the Chinese with no strategy behind the bluster won’t work to America’s advantage, as I heard repeatedly from Chinese officials, academics, and think tankers, as well as from American businessmen in China.
Nor do tweets convey toughness to the Chinese.
Indeed, Trump’s modus operandi is more likely to provoke Chinese retaliation than produce a great deal.
China initially saw the Trump win as advantageous because he appeared ready to pull back from U.S. alliances and overseas involvements in order to focus on domestic issues.
Then the president-elect startled Beijing by taking a phone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. The call was controversial because it broke decades of precedent: Since 1979, when the United States recognized China and broke relations with Taiwan, Washington has “acknowledged” China’s territorial claim to Taiwan. This is known as the One China policy – and is at the core of China’s relations with Washington. The United States maintains informal but close ties with Taiwan’s democratic government, but their top leaders don’t meet or greet.
However, Beijing initially downplayed the controversial call, pointing out that Trump was not yet president. So long as the One China policy itself wasn’t challenged, the episode was manageable and Trump had made his point. Indeed, if his goal was to further warm ties with Taiwan or even upgrade U.S. sales of defensive weapons to Taiwan, he could have taken calculated steps to do so over time, and probably succeeded.
Instead, Trump followed his phone call with provocative tweets and an open challenge to the One China policy on Fox TV. The president-elect said he saw no reason to be bound by the policy unless China made a deal on “other things, including trade.”
Rather than scaring China into concessions, Trump’s challenge is more likely to have the opposite effect.
The One China policy is the third rail of Chinese foreign relations. “If Chinese leaders believe Trump really wants to change the One China policy they will respond strongly,” says Wu Xinbo, director of Fudan University’s Center for American Studies. “My concern is that Trump may overplay his hand.”
Already, Beijing is blaming – and punishing – Taiwan for Trump’s behavior (more about this in another column, following my visit to Taipei). China’s recent seizure of a U.S. drone in international waters was a taunt to Trump. In the same vein, it has just sent its only aircraft carrier on a “routine exercise” through the contested South China Sea.
Chinese scholars say Trump’s open challenge to the One China policy is likely to make it harder for Beijing to make concessions on other issues – including trade.
“It takes all the oxygen out of (China-U.S.) bilateral relations,” says Chen Dongxiao, the president of the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies. “If this was an effort to (get China to) take a more aggressive policy on North Korea, Trump’s behavior has stopped it,” says his colleague Shao Yuqun.
Indeed, progress on the issues on which Trump seeks bargains from Beijing require a strategy far more complex than “the art of the deal.” That strategy will have to include the kind of hard diplomatic slog and strengthening of alliances in which Trump has so far shown no interest at all.
For example, to push back against China’s buildup and militarization of artificial islands in the South China Sea – a long-term threat to freedom of navigation – Trump will need to rally Southeast Asian nations on the sea’s borders. He will have to convince those nations that Washington is still a steadfast ally.
President Obama’s weak response to the Chinese buildup – and the drone seizure – has made those nations dubious about America’s staying power. But so has Trump’s cavalier attitude toward Asian allies, including Japan and South Korea, whose waters are also under Chinese challenge. And so has his abandonment of the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal, in which many Asian leaders had invested much political capital. (That trade deal was also meant as a strategic hedge against Beijing).
China’s President Xi Jinping clearly wants to minimize problems before next year’s communist party conference, but could be driven into a corner if Trump continues to publicly challenge the One China formula. “If Xi is advised by hawkish generals things can go wrong,” warns Shen Dingli, associate dean at Fudan University.
Bluster and impulsive behavior can’t substitute for tough, firm, and consistent diplomacy with China. Nor is negotiating with Beijing the same as deal-making in Atlantic City. It’s time for the president-elect to get serious and put a cap on his lip and his tweets.
Trudy Rubin’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.