How the United States and China Can Avoid Greater Tensions

During the campaign Donald Trump talked about China and the Asia-Pacific region, often in caustic language, but he only gave little snippets of his potential policy toward the region. Greater tensions are highly likely, but not guaranteed.

A review of his statements and a recent essay in Foreign Policy by two of his advisers suggests a three-pronged approach. Priority number one will be to achieve a fairer commercial relationship with China. Continued access to the U.S. market will likely be conditioned on expanded access in China to U.S. imports and investment. Trump highlighted China’s currency policies (and said he’d designate China as a currency manipulator), but he is equally concerned about the full range of Chinese industrial policies that put foreign firms at a disadvantage. Second, he will likely expand the U.S. naval fleet and press allies Japan and South Korea to provide greater financial support in order to continue receiving U.S. military protection. And third, Trump has shown little interest in nation building or in hinging the broader relationship with any country on its human rights record. He’s spoken little about human rights, but his criticism of the American media, defense of torture, and caricature of Islam suggests a weak commitment to civil liberties, at least domestically if not internationally.

Given Trump’s acerbic language and tone, there is good reason to worry that he may start a trade war with China, put strains on U.S. alliances, and ignore the rights of individuals and ethnic minorities in Asia. The consequences of rash impatience on economic and security affairs could threaten prosperity and peace in the Asia-Pacific region, and an inattention to human rights would legitimize poor governance practices.

It is critical that the Trump administration move cautiously and carefully in Asia once it takes office. The goals of expanded market access in China, greater burden sharing among allies, and avoiding entanglement from nation building are reasonable, but success will not be achieved by blindly riding roughshod over China and U.S. friends and allies or by dismissing the United States’ existing regional and global commitments. U.S. industry, workers, and consumers have benefited—and still benefit—immensely from the post–World War II international architecture and from the United States’ relationships with China, Japan, South Korea, and others in the region in ways that cannot be measured by a simple mathematical calculation.

How is China likely to respond? There will be an understandable inclination to see the worst in Trump’s statements, responding brusquely to any signs of economic pressure, exploiting potential divisions between the United States and its allies, and feeling entirely unconstrained on domestic governance issues. This is doubly true given that China is in the early stages of its own leadership transition that will not conclude until late 2017 at the 19th Party Congress. That said, it would be in China’s strategic interest to dissect Trump’s messages dispassionately, to try to appreciate his core concerns, and to search for ways to address them that would be in both countries’ interests and preserve as much cooperation as possible. Given the deeply felt the sense of unfairness in the U.S.-China relationship and in globalization that pervades much of the American electorate and its incoming administration, a knee-jerk defensiveness by China would generate even greater hostility. Similarly, China should recognize that a sudden change in the United States’ alliances and military presence in the region could unleash dynamics that create unforeseen consequences that leave China far less secure than it is now.

U.S.-China relations are likely headed for greater tensions. Deft diplomacy on both sides will be necessary to avoid the worst possible outcomes; in fact, it could help achieve a more balanced relationship that is more durable than currently appears to be the case. Prognosticators did not see Trump’s election coming. Likewise, perhaps we should hesitate before concluding that a new era of U.S.-China unmitigated enmity and regional disorder is inevitable.

Scott Kennedy is deputy director of the Freeman Chair in China Studies and director of the Project on Chinese Business and Political Economy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Scott Kennedy
Senior Adviser and Trustee Chair in Chinese Business and Economics