China 1, Trump 0” has been the widely claimed verdict after President Donald Trump assured his Chinese counterpart on February 9 that, contrary to what he had led many to believe, his administration will stand by the “One China principle,” which recognizes Taiwan as part of China.
“First round goes to China,” declared a major German newspaper. The score may even be seen as “2-0” considering the splash President Xi Jinping made in Davos when he presented himself as the true defender of globalization, which many Europeans read as an effort to portray China as standing on their side in the face of a potentially protectionist United States. However, things may be going according to Trump’s plan much more than it seems when it comes to China policy. At the very least, Beijing is on the defensive on two out of three major fronts: the bilateral relationship, security, and trade.
To understand why Trump is doing better with regard to China than many assume, it helps to consider what the situation would have been had Hillary Clinton been elected instead. Since they had dealt with her for a long time, she was a known quantity to China’s leaders. In all probability, they would have felt very confident in pursuing further their strategies to establish a relationship in which the United States and China are equal partners, to assert gradually a stronger Chinese position in the Western Pacific, and to use China’s economic strength to entice countries in Southeast Asia and Eurasia into a closer partnership through the One Belt One Road project.
Instead, Trump has proved to be unpredictable in more ways even than China, and the world, expected. Surprisingly, given the new president’s insistence on his dealmaking skills as a businessman, he has not yet focused on the economic relationship between the two countries. Trump raising the prospect of dropping the One China policy in his phone call last December with Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, caused consternation in Beijing and led to vicious threats in the Chinese media about the future of the U.S.-Chinese relationship. However, after letting them wait for weeks, it only took one phone call from Trump, with scripted lines to reassure them, for China’s leaders to declare their satisfaction that things were back to normal. But back to normal they are not. Instead, Trump has made China show how much it values a good relationship with the United States. He challenged Beijing and it blinked. Far from establishing a relationship in which it stared down the new U.S. president, it has shown weakness. The world has seen how easily China can get nervous.
This has to do with the second aspect of the relationship: security. During the presidential election campaign, Trump threatened to cut Japan and South Korea loose from their alliance with the United States. This seemed to raise hopes in China that, in return for some compromises on trade, Trump would not mind abandoning the Western Pacific region to its hegemony. The opposite turned out to be true. Far from leaving the region to its own devices, the United States has reiterated, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has made clear, that it will not accept the creation by China of militarized man-made islands in the South China Sea. The U.S. Navy has also announced it will restart the Freedom of Navigation Operations that the Obama administration had all but terminated. Trump has also stressed that, in view of North Korea's behavior, he will pursue plans to install the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system in South Korea. Most importantly, he has reaffirmed the value of the U.S.-Japanese security alliance and reiterated the assurance made by President Barack Obama in 2014 that the defense of the disputed Senkaku islands constitutes an obligation for the United States within the framework of the alliance. Since the Trump-Xi phone call, China has been remarkably silent about these issues. If their exchange on Washington adhering to the One China principle was the result of give-and-take, then it might not be wrong to assume that Beijing’s – surely reluctant – acceptance of Trump’s assertiveness in security matters was part of the deal.
All that has happened up to now may turn out to be only foreplay to what is going to happen between the United States and China on the economic front. Observers, including those in Europe, can but speculate with a U.S. president whose strategic approach seems to be to surprise friend and foe alike – and for whom the distinction between the two seems unclear. That should give pause to those Europeans contemplating, as a result of their anxiety about the new administration, offering China a closer relationship. Not knowing where Trump will tread next, or how China will react, it would be premature to assume the U.S.-Chinese relationship will remain a conflict-prone one from which Europe might benefit. What is clear for now is that, on the bilateral relationship and on security in the Western Pacific, Trump has strengthened his position, if only by introducing strong elements of uncertainty and ominous unpredictability into his dealings with China. So far, he has not acted against China on currency manipulation or on raising duties on Chinese imports, as he has long threatened. But stay tuned, that is what well may come next – and Trump may again get his way.