Sino-US Relations: An Extended Crossroads

Both Russia and China paid particular attention to the foreign policy changes that the 2016 US presidential election foreshadowed. While Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton had already demonstrated her views on China when she served as Secretary of State, Republican candidate Donald Trump’s proposed foreign policies were more ambiguous. Although Trump’s campaign did its fair share of villainizing China, his promise to remove the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) would actually decrease US influence in the region. Despite threatening to impose a high tariff on Chinese imports, President Trump has put forward policies which would diminish the United States’ role in international affairs, allowing China to take on greater leadership in the region. His election has left the future of Sino-US relations unclear.

A fundamental principle in international politics is that no power must rest secure; in an international order with no legal enforcement, only a consistent effort to maintain the global balance of power prevents the situation from falling into anarchy. In the aftermath of World War II, multiple institutions were established to maintain this balance: the United Nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the G-20. These organizations depended largely on direct state action to ensure that all nations would accept principles such as non-aggression, regulation of nuclear weaponry, and a codified standard of universal human rights. After WWII stripped countries like the United Kingdom of their world power status and after the Soviet Union collapsed in the late 20th century, the United States emerged as the world’s sole superpower, capable of dictating the behavior of other nations.

Yet the new international order has often come under fire from states that have risen to power in recent decades. China, in particular, has criticized the US-dominated system for imposing strict conditions on any participating country and for menacing its regime with the promotion of democracy. China’s rapid economic ascension and its incorporation into international institutions such as those mentioned above has given rise to the debate over the country’s intentions as a global power. Will it become a part of the status quo, or will it establish itself as a revisionist power? Is it likely to preserve the existing international order or create a new one? While proponents of the latter stance look to China’s criticism of the international system as evidence of drastic changes to come, advocates of the former claim that China’s participation in the institutions that form the current international order makes a total upheaval of international relations unlikely.

Questioning One China

The debate over the One China policy has recently received greater attention among American policymakers, after a phone conversation between newly elected President Trump and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. Since the ratification of the Shanghai Communique in 1972, the United States has adhered to China’s demand for a “One China policy,” in which Beijing is recognized as the sole seat of the legitimate Chinese government. Trump’s conversation acknowledged the Taiwanese head of state and thus called the future of this treaty into question.

The situation was exacerbated when Trump later floated the idea of using Taiwan and the One China policy as leverage to gain greater concessions from China. “We’re being hurt very badly by China with devaluation; with taxing us heavy at the borders when we don’t tax them; with building a massive fortress in the middle of the South China Sea,” he said, “and, frankly, with not helping us at all with North Korea.”

Failing to honor this policy after 44 years, as Trump seemed keen to do when he called the One China policy into question, would change the course of Sino-US relations. But, while rash, Trump’s threat fits into a larger pattern of recent change in political discourse. Playing on the fear of China’s rise in global power, Trump’s presidential campaign promised to protect Americans from currency manipulation, job loss, and diversion of incomes by containing China.  

However, as East Asia experts, such as Paul Haenle, have warned, the One China policy is non-negotiable. In fact, China has compiled a list of punitive measures that they would take should Washington push the issue. In the event of a trade war, China could reduce imports of American agricultural products, Not only could they turn to Europe, Australia, and Canada to fill the gap, but they could also rely on the agricultural lobbies in 20 to 30 US states to put pressure on Congress to preserve One China.

The rapid reversal of this carrot-and-stick approach to Chinese relations invites some investigation into US perceptions of China. In addition to a phone call between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping reasserting America’s commitment to the One China policy, former national security advisor Michael Flynn hand-delivered a letter to the Chinese ambassador to the United States, wishing the Chinese people a prosperous Year of the Rooster. A video of Trump’s granddaughter singing Happy New Year in Mandarin was even unofficially circulated on social media.  

Taiwan: A Core Part of Chinese Identity

While the Trump administration quickly performed damage control for the phone call to Ing-wen, one still wonders: what are the implications of threatening the One China policy? Why would recognizing Taiwan threaten the global standing of the People’s Republic of China?

For many, Taiwan is the great “lost territory” of China. Not only is the territory itself regarded as a historical part of China, but the flight of Chiang Kai-shek and his forces after the Chinese Civil War represented a perennial challenge to the People’s Republic of China. Striking down Chiang Kai-shek’s claim that Taipei was the new seat of the Republic of China became an important objective on the Chinese Communist Party’s agenda for the civil war, an objective that is still unfulfilled today.

Many in China view Chinese identity as immutable, timeless, and fixed in history. The legitimacy of the Chinese claim to Taiwan, therefore, is viewed through the lens of historical right, rather than as an appeal to popular sovereignty. Thus, although they maintain that the claim to Taiwan is non-negotiable, the Chinese seem to be content to sideline the issue and think of reunification as a future inevitability—so long as their claim to Taiwan remains uncontested.

Tensions already exist between the United States and China, despite the fact that the United States never formally contested China’s claim to Taiwan. America’s early recognition of the Taiwanese state in 1949—a product of their support for Chiang Kai-shek—was never fully withdrawn. Historically, Sino-US diplomacy has been based on tacit acknowledgements of spheres of power. In the Normalisation Communique of 1979, China agreed to the maintenance of cultural, commercial, and other unofficial ties between the United States and Taiwan. Moreover, the Second Shanghai Communique of 1982 served as a significant compromise for China, in which ambiguous language stated that a reduction of US arms sales to Taiwan would be contingent on the peaceful resolution of the Taiwan question. In effect, though the US withdrew troops and military advisors, China agreed to the continuation of American arms sales to Taiwan. Military annexation of Taiwan was thus never considered, due to persistent US involvement in the region.

While Chinese annexation of Taiwan would be unlikely to transform the political framework of the smaller state—a assumption supported by the lack of political transformation in Hong Kong following the reinstallation of Chinese authority—the historical claim laid to it has made annexation integral to China’s own conception of its global power. Unlike Western countries, for whom the concepts of state and nation are interwoven, China’s existence predates its consolidation into a nation in the early 20th century. Chinese history, customs and traditions, roles of government, and ways of thinking are all intrinsically linked to its identity as a civilization. Thus, the reclamation of Taiwanese territory matters more as a symbolic reaffirmation of Chinese civilization than as a geopolitical expansion of power.  

Global power

Yet another question rises from this explanation: what exactly does global power mean for the Chinese? In the traditional definition linking power to wealth, China is a major global player. It is the world’s largest exporter and even has a manned space program. It receives the second-largest amount of foreign direct investment, has the world’s largest population, the world’s largest foreign exchange reserves, and ranks as the largest or best in many traditional measures of economic power.

But as Harvard professor Joseph Nye argues, resources do not necessarily translate into power. Militarily, China advocates non-interference in global affairs, and, economically, it appears to act solely in its own interests. China’s isolation from international affairs has kept the country from living up to its full potential as a political superpower.
For instance, China’s modernization program, in place since the mid-20th century, has largely been aimed at deterring US military power and other foreign forces in the region.  However, its military expenditures are not high enough to justify the suspicion that the Chinese economy is militarized and mobilized to balance against US power. No attempt has been made to construct anti-American alliances, and China is not trying to actively disrupt US alliances with Japan or South Korea. In fact, it is only in Taiwan that China’s goals lay in direct conflict with those of the United States, as China seeks to minimize the United States’ ability to defend Taiwan against Chinese military coercion. China’s preparations for countering US military power in a hypothetical Taiwanese conflict should thus not be interpreted as a larger desire to counterbalance the United States in terms of regional distributions of power.

China’s policy of non-interference has drawn criticism in the past, and is often considered to be a factor in the country’s lower global standing, as other states are less receptive to the influence of a country that stands isolated from international affairs. In a 2005 address to the National Committee of US-China relations, Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick called for China to “strengthen the international system that has enabled its success,” as a “stakeholder that shares responsibility on international economic issues.”  

Interestingly, the Chinese government has become an unusually strong proponent of the United Nations. Its commitment to the international liberal order has caused China to advocate a  “new type” of regional organization, based not on alliances but on comprehensive, cooperative security, respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, and confidence-building measures. China’s departure from the traditional, Western concept of international competition has enhanced the nation’s commitment to the global order and so reaffirmed its position as a status quo power.

By initiating several agreements, China has strengthened its own soft power. For instance, by taking the lead in the establishment of a Chinese-ASEAN free trade area on January 1st, 2010, China reassured East Asian countries that it will be mindful of the consequences of pursuing economic development. The ASEAN-China Free Trade Area (ACFTA) now lies at the core of a new web of East Asian arrangements. Notably, the United States has been effectively excluded from economic diplomacy in the region.

In fact, China’s commitment to international cooperation has alarmed US foreign policy officials in the past. In 2013, China launched an initiative to establish a new multilateral development institution, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. This fulfilled Zoellick’s aforementioned plea for greater global involvement, as it helped fulfill a multi-trillion dollar gap in financing for railways, roads, power plants, and other infrastructure in the world’s fastest-growing region. Nevertheless, the United States treated this as a challenge to the existing regional and global development institutions that it had helped to establish in the decades after World War II. By mid-2016, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Israel, South Korea, and the UK had all defied Washington and signed up. The only exception was Japan, which has yet to sign on as a contributory to China’s alternative multilateral financial institution.

Another attempt by the United States to reinstate its presence in East Asia—and contain China’s influence —was the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed free trade area between 12 countries in the Asia-Pacific region. However, the election of Donald Trump brought an end to US participation in the treaty when President Trump reneged on the deal in his first month in office. Ironically, this has opened the door for Beijing’s own proposed treaty, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which proposes a similar agreement but with China at its helm rather than the United States.

China may criticize Western institutions, but its commitment to international treaties suggests that it would push reform for the international order, rather than upheaval. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this January, Chinese President Xi reaffirmed China’s commitment to globalization and even suggested that China was prepared to step up as the champion of free trade while the United States threatens to retreat into isolationism. As it invests heavily in developing regions and enhances its own economic influence via trade agreements across the Asia-Pacific region, China appears to have taken Zoellick’s advice in an attempt to expand its own global power.

While Trump’s phone call to the Taiwanese president may seem unrelated to China’s pursuit of global power—which, after all, does seek to exclude the United States from the Asia-Pacific region—it should be understood as an attack on China’s symbolic stature. Rather than imitate the previous attempt to undermine China’s global power by discouraging countries from joining the AIIB, Trump chose to use this phone call as a gesture to hit China at the heart of its own conception of power: its identity as a civilization. Similarly, any attempt by the new administration to pursue relations with Japan, China’s great rival, would directly compromise  US recognition of the Chinese sphere of influence.

A Conflict of Actions: Symbolic or Pragmatic?

Along what course, then, lies the future of Sino-US relations, and how will it affect China’s global power? From a practical perspective, President Trump has cleared the way for China to increase its soft power. By enacting a series of policies designed to isolate the United States and alienate its allies, China is now able to present itself as the new champion of the international liberal order.

From a symbolic perspective, however, Trump has presented an ambiguous series of actions from which China must derive its response. Unlike his approach in conversations with other heads of state, Trump’s moderation of his bullish tone when confirming American commitment to the One China policy falls in line with the respectful exchange that Chinese leaders demand when negotiating with other heads of state.

However, accepting the phone call from the Taiwanese president in the first place and inviting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to visit the United States are both gestures that allow the United States to question Chinese authority in the Asia-Pacific region, a move that could antagonize Beijing. China’s future as a global power is promising, but the future of Sino-US relations remains less clear.