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Chinese Communist Party Chairman Xi Jinping is meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump this week at the real estate mogul’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. While Xi will achieve his main goal of a photo-op with Trump, the meeting still carries risks for Beijing.
As the country’s leader, Xi has overseen an intense crackdown against dissent at home as well as an aggressive foreign policy abroad, even as China’s economy undergoes a structural downturn. China is in trouble, and this week’s summit will not alleviate any of the pressures on Xi. Indeed, Trump may increase the stress on the CCP chairman by pressuring him to rein in North Korea and to stop Beijing’s economic malfeasance.
Turning a strategic page
But the Trump administration faces risks as well. Its China policy is not yet well developed, and Trump’s high-growth-focused domestic agenda faces obstacles.
First, some strategic context. Trump inherited an Asia in which China was making gains at the expense of the United States. During his time in office, President Obama attempted a strategic reassessment of U.S. priorities in the region, a move often referred to as the Asia rebalance. This policy was meant in part to refocus Washington away from what Obama mistakenly viewed as the end of America’s ongoing wars in the Middle East.
However, the rebalance was also intended as a response to increasingly aggressive Chinese actions in the region, such as the expansion of its territory and military might in the South China Sea, its increased belligerence in the East China Sea toward neighboring Japan, and its coercive efforts against Taiwan. In short, Beijing was diluting U.S. influence in the critical first island chain: the countries and territories running from Japan through parts of Indonesia. Historically, American strategy has been to maintain its strategic dominance and political economic influence in this critical zone. The grand strategy has been a boon to U.S. security and prosperity.
But there was little real substance to the new U.S. approach. The Obama administration should be credited for engaging with Southeast Asia, attempting to reconcile South Korea and Japan, and finalizing new security agreements with the Philippines and Vietnam. However, Obama’s belated attempts to negotiate and finalize the Trans-Pacific Partnership, in addition to his clumsy domestic salesmanship during an election year, helped doom that agreement. And although the Obama administration had articulated this so-called pivot, it simultaneously starved the military of the budget it needed to rebuild a force that could effectively counter China in the region.
Finally, Obama’s non-policy of strategic patience with North Korea did nothing to arrest the Kim dynasty’s relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. The Trump team inherited a looming crisis in the Korean Peninsula, and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un amplified his missile and nuclear testing rhetoric and threatened to test an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the United States.
No new model for great power relations
Still, Obama’s strategic vision was essentially correct. Much of the work in China policy has little to do with Sino-American bilateral relations. Rather, U.S. strategy relies on establishing sound alliances and partnerships. The goal of the Obama administration’s Asia policy was to discourage Beijing’s attempts at regional dominance, and to prod it to accept its place as one of many Asian powers. That strategy was always doomed to fail, however, without the credible threat of U.S. force to back it up, in addition to a ratified TPP that would have provided the political-economic regional architecture.
As a result of this strategic ambiguity, China has spent the last eight years taking, building, and militarizing maritime territory in the South China Sea, arguably changing the territorial status quo in East Asia. Add to this mix a newly emboldened regime in North Korea, and the potential for a U.S. crisis in the region appears even more likely.
How has the Trump administration approached this daunting set of challenges? As an outsider businessman who captured the imagination of many working-class Americans, Trump’s focus has largely been on China’s economic misconduct. While the U.S.-China economic relationship has yielded some positive returns for America, China’s theft of intellectual property, its subsidization of state-owned enterprises (SOE), and its barriers to reciprocal market access have hurt American workers and companies. Trump clearly wants to address these issues. As his recent executive orders, tweets, and interviews have underlined, China’s economic policy is foremost on the president’s mind.
But Chinese trade disputes are not the administration’s only concern. The Trump administration has also laid the groundwork for an alliance-centered approach in Asia. His phone conversation with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen made clear that the United States will pursue a “One China” policy that is consistent with U.S. interests, and not Beijing’s. Recent trips to the region by Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have helped to reassure America’s allies of continued U.S. support in the face of the North Korea threat and China’s maritime encroachment. The Trump-Abe summit was highly productive, and made clear again U.S. commitments to Japan in the East China Sea.
However, given Beijing’s skill in charming all new U.S. governments, the administration may be tempted to slow its pressure on China. Xi will come to Florida armed with promises to address some of the trade issues raised by President Trump and his team, and the Chinese leader will undoubtedly pledge once again to “help” on North Korea. This is ironic given Beijing’s coercion and bullying of South Korea as Seoul attempts to defend itself against the North’s missiles by deploying the THAAD.
What should be of most concern to Trump is that Xi will also press the United States to accept China’s “new model of great power relations,” which is a Chinese strategic concept and a propaganda tool meant to frustrate the idea of an Asia made up of many autonomous free powers. The administration has privately rejected China’s attempts to draw the United States into a “G2”-like structure in which the two countries co-manage East Asia. They should do so publicly.
A series of speeches and official statements that lay out a U.S. vision of Asia would also help alleviate concerns that Washington is accepting China’s vision for the region. The U.S. strategic objective should be to promote an Asia populated by independent and strategically autonomous states, developing free of coercion, and aligned with The United States.
Ultimately, Trump’s high-growth domestic agenda will be key to setting America back on course in Asia. If Trump is successful in implementing his tax and deregulatory agenda, all Americans will enjoy economic growth and increased labor participation. This can create American confidence and the momentum and political capital needed for a positive Asian trade agenda, as well as a real fix to the U.S. defense budget.
Trump’s essential commitment to Americans is to strengthen the United States at home and abroad. To succeed, the president must in part develop a regional strategy that ensures America’s role as the predominant power in a “whole and free” Asia. In the meantime, the administration would do well to articulate where it wants to take U.S. policy in Asia, and thus put the bilateral relationship with China in the proper framework: as one of many important relationships with Asian powers.
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