Mapping the US-China Relationship in the Age of Trump

Mapping the US-China Relationship in the Age of Trump

By Luke Vargas   
Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Donald Trump pose for a photograph with their wives during a summit at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort. April 6, 2017. White House Photo.

“Wake” is a weekly foreign policy broadcast produced by Talk Media News and hosted by Luke Vargas from our studio at U.N. Headquarters in New York.

The following is a complete transcript of Episode One, “Mapping the U.S.-China Relationship in the Age of Trump.”

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Luke Vargas: Welcome to “Wake,” a production of Talk Media News. I’m your host Luke Vargas here for a dip into the waters of foreign policy to consider how events overseas affect our shores.

On today’s show we’re mapping out the U.S.-China relationship in the age of President Trump. When Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Trump earlier this month U.S. strikes in Syria overshadowed the encounter. But there’s far too much at stake for U.S.-China relations to stay quiet for long – from the possibility of a trade war to the simmering question of North Korea, controversy in the South China Sea and competing global visions. We’re breaking it all down next on Wake.

Joining me to help understand the state of the U.S.-China relationship is Elizabeth Wishnick a professor at Montclair State University and a senior research scholar at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University. Elizabeth, welcome to the show.

Elizabeth Wishnick: Thank you very much. I’m glad to be here.

Luke Vargas: And also on the line today is Ann Lee author of the book “What the U.S. Can Learn from China.” She also teaches just down the road at NYU. Ann, thank you for joining us.

Ann Lee: Thanks for having me.

Luke Vargas: There were a lot of predictions about what would come out of this recent summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Trump down at Mar a Lago. But besides some photos of these two men strolling the grounds of the resort it didn’t seem that we got all that much by way of headlines. Now, President Xi is not one to cause a stir in the media but he seemed to have clammed up even more once President Trump made the decision to strike Syria. Ann, I’m wondering, could you recap what if anything we actually learned from this summit?

Ann Lee: So I think what we learned is that Trump is willing to use the threat of force to get his way. And that is a huge negotiating tactic that he showed Xi, and that really set the tone for the meeting. I think Trump accomplished far more with that one surgical strike than all the talks and photo ops that normally would happen in a meeting like this.

Luke Vargas: These two men met for about 36 hours and then just days later they were on the phone again reportedly going over some pretty basic points about North Korea, with the Chinese president warning Trump not to start a war.

Now the Chinese government says the fact that they’re having frequent conversations with the U.S. president is a good sign, but could the fact that they needed a follow up so quickly be a sign that they actually maybe had some difficulty communicating with each other?

Ann Lee: I would agree that there is some difficulty here because I’m sure that President Trump thought he sent a very clear message about what he was willing to do with the use of force and was hoping that President Xi Jinping would back down and agree to whatever U.S. demands are going to be.

But the fact that North Korea was not being accommodating and willing to launch another nuclear missile probably concerned President Trump because he thought that Xi Jinping would probably have reigned in North Korea after the Syria strikes and since that didn’t happen, that was probably very disconcerting to President Trump. So I think that that is why there are more there’s more communicating.

Presidents Trump and Xi walk the grounds of Mar a Lago. Courtesy: Xinhua
Presidents Trump and Xi walk the grounds of Mar a Lago. Courtesy: Xinhua

Luke Vargas: Liz, we don’t know what dinner was like between Xi and Trump on the night of the Syria strikes, but is it possible to guess what President Xi might, how he might have received the news of that military attack?

Elizabeth Wishnick: Well Trump did tell Fox News that he discussed the the air strike against Syria over chocolate cake and he claimed that the Chinese leader was supportive of the action but that, the latter seems unlikely from everything we know about Chinese foreign policy.

I think this was probably a very unwelcome surprise for President Xi. The Chinese leadership likes scripted summits. They don’t like surprises, especially being eclipsed by a military action that they would not be supportive of.

I doubt Xi was pleased about being overshadowed by the shift in the conversation to Syria policy, and it him in an awkward position because when it came to the U.N. vote, China had previously always vetoed U.N. Security Council resolutions along with Russia. And this time, China abstained on the vote. It put China in a very awkward position and also raised the question about what are the circumstances under which the U.S. would use force, for example on North Korea.

I think Xi Jinping must conclude that that the Trump administration is very unpredictable and is likely to be difficult to get along with.

Luke Vargas Liz, I am curious, you have spent a lot of time studying the triangular relationship between the U.S., China and Russia. What has the response in China been to the election of Donald Trump? You know, when it looked as if the new U.S. president was going to usher in a warmer relationship with Russia –

And in what ways has that response changed in recent weeks as it appears that this U.S. Russia relationship is back to its formerly sour state?

Elizabeth Wishnick: I think there are a lot of different reactions in China to Trump’s apparent friendly attitude towards Russia. Some were surprised and some were puzzled by this. Others were wary that some new momentum in U.S.-Russia relations might undermine the China-Russia partnership in a way that would be negative for China.

They were waiting to see how this would play out. And certainly the way things look now there’s not going to be too much change in U.S.-Russia relations. I mean there’s the whole drama of the contact between the Trump campaign and Russians and it’s likely to be a big sideshow in terms of creating any kind of coherent U.S. foreign policy.

This being said I think that China has always been opposed to the use of sanctions against any country and would be happy if if the Trump administration took a different viewpoint on sanctions against Russia and in general. But the pressure from the US against Russia has enabled China and Russia to move more quickly on certain economic cooperation projects. And so I think China would want to keep that momentum going and the current tensions between the U.S. and Russia make that more likely.

Luke Vargas: We’ve seen a lot of dealmaking between Russia and China in recent years – energy agreements talk about building pipelines and other transit links. Should American audiences look at that and see these countries as not just business partners but true ideological allies? Or is there more nuance to it than that? Is China getting the upper hand against Russia in a way that an American audience might not be able to see on the surface?

An oil storage facility along a China-Russia pipeline in China's Heilongjiang Province. Courtesy: Xinhua/Wang Jianwei
An oil storage facility along a China-Russia pipeline in China’s Heilongjiang Province. Courtesy: Xinhua/Wang Jianwei

Elizabeth Wishnick: Well certainly some in Russia have that fear that that China’s the rising economic power and is benefiting from resource deals with Russia, for example, in a way that would boost China’s position at the expense of Russia.

But I think that the reality is more complex than that, and there’s more give and take there. They have been careful to say that they are not military allies, that they are strategic partners. So the relationship has not gone yet in the direction of the alliance that used to exist between the two countries in the 1950s.

But I think that they do share certain political values and we see this in the Syria case where they both take exception to what they call interference in the domestic politics of other countries. They’re opposed to sanctions. They don’t want outside groups and non-governmental organizations to agitate for human rights in other countries, especially their own.

So there are certain common values that they share that bring them together even though historically they’ve had a lot of differences on many topics and they even for a brief border war against one another in 1969.

Luke Vargas: Ann, did you want to jump in?

Ann Lee: I was just going to add that I don’t see them as natural blood brothers. I mean in fact there were high tensions between the two countries, and as Elizabeth had said they even fought a border war, but their cooperation of late I think is largely a reaction to U.S. policies and other military sort of provocations and whatever relationship they have now I would say is more of a product of U.S. foreign policy, that the U.S. is actually pushing the two together as opposed to them having a natural alliance, frankly.

Elizabeth Wishnick: I would disagree with that.

I mean, I think that the Ukraine issue deepened what was already happening before. I think what really brought them together was the global economic crisis. That’s when the two countries began criticizing the role of the U.S. in the global economy and they began to take some steps to increase their economic cooperation. I think it really preceded Ukraine. But certainly what the U.S. does has the potential to either accelerate this trend or not.

Luke Vargas: Under the Obama administration the U.S. was pretty upfront about factoring in things like human rights into dealmaking – that we weren’t just going to do business with anyone.

By contrast, at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year, Chinese President Xi Jinping laid out China’s philosophy, saying plainly that China was going to keep championing globalization around the world even if in places it heightened inequity.

Liz, has this long been China’s approach to deal making or are they sensing in Trump some competition now, that there’s another big leader out there willing to overlook things like human rights and focus on closing the deal?

Chinese President Xi Jinping addresses the 2017 World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland. Jan. 17, 2017. Courtesy: Xinhua/Lan Hongguang
Chinese President Xi Jinping addresses the 2017 World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland. Jan. 17, 2017. Courtesy: Xinhua/Lan Hongguang

Elizabeth Wishnick: Well I think for one thing, that China doesn’t always practice what it preaches. It claims to want to support business-like relations and leave politics aside. But if you look at China’s behavior that’s not how they operate. For example, countries that have angered China in terms of their Tibet policy find themselves being cold shouldered. Norway had this experience.

China does interject politics into its economic dealings and it’s quick to criticize other countries for doing that. So I don’t know if this is really a big shift in China’s policy.

In terms of heralding a new leadership role for China in a globalized world, I think China’s role is still fairly limited to certain kinds of initiatives like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to provide more leadership of infrastructure development in the neighborhood.

But China still doesn’t play a big role in many other areas like global health or in the refugee crisis. On the environment I think the record is more mixed. They claim to want to do something about climate change but they have trouble implementing their own environmental policies and they tend to export polluting technologies to other countries. So I think it’s a mixed picture.

They talk a good game like President Xi Jinping did at Davos but we still have a ways to go before China’s going to be taking over any major leadership role, and certainly isn’t in a position to be criticizing the U.S. on this front right now.

Luke Vargas: Ann, I’m curious what you’re seeing from China around the world right now. Trump is clearly still in his education phase where he’s meeting with world leaders for the first time. Do you think he’s going to start to see some sort of pattern whereby China already showed up, they already offered a sweeter deal and the U.S. is frozen out of a country? Or is this world big enough to accommodate the global ambitions of both of these countries?

Ann Lee: I do think that the U.S. and China are basically working in different spheres still. China largely, as Elizabeth pointed out, is working on infrastructure deals, and that’s not something that the U.S. has historically been doing a great deal with developing countries. China has reportedly spent far more than the World Bank now on helping developing countries with infrastructure.

And China typically goes to places where the U.S. really hasn’t spent much time or money because it’s not like a core national interest of the U.S.. So many countries in Africa for instance or in Central Asia are areas where the U.S. doesn’t have a very strong presence and so China basically went to those nations with sweet deals to help them build infrastructure. And that’s where China has developed a lot of political goodwill that has translated into support in the U.N.

I don’t think that that is necessarily clashing with the U.S., in that the U.S. has always put Europe as its most important national interest, and now its seems to be pivoting to Asia. But you can see that these two have been sort of, not necessarily been stepping on each other’s toes up until now.

The ambitions so far have not been conflictual in that sense. Unless Trump wants to tread in the same places that China is, such as the Central Asia region where China is trying to build their Silk Road policy, I don’t see that necessarily being a sore point.

Of course China is trying to do more deals in Europe and we do see the U.S. pressuring various countries to try to block those deals, namely in Germany and other places. I think in those areas we might see more issues crop up, but in the developing world I see less of a problem.

The Beijing headquarters of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Courtesy: AIIB
The Beijing headquarters of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Courtesy: AIIB

Luke Vargas: I think that’s a good segue to the TPP, the free trade deal that for a while looked like it was going to bring the U.S. into closer orbit with countries in Southeast Asia. Trump of course killed that deal just days into his presidency saying it was going to have a negative impact on U.S. jobs.

Ann, I’m curious about the countries left behind by that agreement. Cambodia the Philippines Vietnam. How have they been reacting are they begging Trump to get in line for a bilateral trade deal or have they sort of given up and decided to pivot towards China.

Ann Lee: Well those countries you mentioned, they have different relationships with China and the U.S.

I would say Cambodia has always been sort of under the China influence as opposed to pivoting to China.

Vietnam has a more conflictual relationship with China and certainly they were disappointed that TPP did not go through.

The Philippines has been flip-flopping between U.S. and China.

But I don’t think any of these countries are begging Trump to strike a bilateral deal, namely because these are all small countries and they know that they all need to negotiate as a group against the U.S., or with the U.S., because if they go one-on-one it’s impossible for them to have any leverage against the U.S. – it would be a completely unbalanced negotiation and the U.S. would get everything it wanted and they would really have no negotiating power. So a bilateral trade agreement would not help any of them.

Luke Vargas: Liz, I want to turn to the South China Sea dispute quickly. It’s sometimes said that China cares about this area so much because it wants to guarantee that its oil imports can flow through the region without any interruption.

If that’s the case, if this is about preserving trade, is it possible the U.S. and China might be able to figure out a way to resolve this dispute and, let’s say, maintain freedom of the seas without militarily occupying islands? Or does it seem as if a collision of some sort on this issue is inevitable? 

Elizabeth Wishnick: I think there are two different problems here. One is that the Trump administration has yet to really formulate a foreign policy – it doesn’t have a lot of the key people in place on Asia.

So what we see are a lot of reactions to developments rather than a clear strategy. We’ve seen several military strikes – against Syria, Yemen, a big bomb in Afghanistan. And it seems to be a trend of taking military actions without clearly articulating a strategy. And so that does concern me, and I know the U.S. Navy has been eager to continue freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea and the Obama administration had restricted those for several years.

And so I hope that the United States will clearly think through what we hope to achieve in the region before sending out the Navy. And I think the other problem is on the Chinese side. I’m not sure that resources are the main priority. I think the underlying problem is sovereignty.

This is a particularly delicate time in China as they prepare for their major Communist Party Congress in the Fall and Xi Jinping is trying to consolidate his power base and is not in the mood to make a lot of concessions on sovereignty issues. These two factors might make for some trouble ahead on this issue.

A U.S. Navy helicopter performs a drill in the South China Sea. July 22, 2016. Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Elesia K. Patten
A U.S. Navy helicopter performs a drill in the South China Sea. July 22, 2016. Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Elesia K. Patten

Luke Vargas: Ann, in the minute we’ve got left, the South China Sea was already a pretty difficult place for the U.S. to operate with these military installations from China.

But President Trump seems have just dialed up the stakes even more. He’s threatened to blockade some of these Chinese bases. He pledged to Shinzo Abe in a meeting earlier this year that he would patrol the Senkaku Islands which are in an entirely different part of the region.

Can the U.S. actually enforce all of these promises, and does it matter? Is this more just about force projection in a way?

Ann Lee: The U.S. certainly can enforce these because the U.S. has enough military to patrol all the islands with the largest military in the world.

The U.S. is probably looking for opportunities to deploy their forces and make themselves feel needed. But as far as whether this is going to really escalate stakes with China, I think that China definitely does not want to engage in any military conflict with the U.S., especially after seeing what the U.S. did in Syria with the missile strikes.

What China probably would do if Trump were to have these naval ships block various bases, China would probably send fishing boats out there so that if they’re unarmed it would possibly block any U.S. military movements, but it would make the U.S. look like they’re in the wrong if they try to strike back at these unarmed fishermen.

That would be probably a tactic that China would use in that case in order to avoid any military escalation and still maintain its moral authority in terms of not being the first aggressor in any situation down there. It’s unclear whether China is going to make this a core interest or not, and so we just have to wait and see how this one plays out, too.

Luke Vargas: And we’re going to have to leave it there.

Ann Lee, author of “What the U.S. Can Learn From China” and a professor at NYU, thanks for being with us.

Ann Lee: Thank you.

Luke Vargas: And Elizabeth Wishnick, a professor of political science at Montclair State University and senior research scholar at the Weatherhead East Asia Institute at Columbia, thank you.

Elizabeth Wishnick: Thank you.

Luke Vargas: If you like what you just heard leave us a review on iTunes or follow the program on Twitter @WakeOnAir.

I’m Luke Vargas, signing off. Join us again next week on Wake.

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    1. The US claims that Trump has succeeded in creating distance between China and Russia over the Syrian question, but China, it appears, will not let go of Russia so easily.
      After last week’s visit to the USA: China now going to Russia to clear up matters.

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