What Trump Portends for Japan-US Relations

US-China Relations Under the Trump Administration: A View from Tokyo

East Asia expert Kawashima Shin reviews America’s China policy under Obama and considers the prospects for relations between Washington and Beijing under Trump, along with the implications for Japan.

The Obama Administration’s China Policy: Engagement and Hedging

As the inauguration of US President-elect Donald Trump approaches, we hear much discussion of the prospects for the United States’ relations with China under the new administration and Japan’s status in this context. As a prelude to considering such matters, I think we need to look back at the course of the China policy that the United States has followed under President Barack Obama.

Ever since its launch in January 2009, the Obama administration has maintained a consistent stance toward Beijing, adopting a basic “engage-and-hedge” policy and aiming to turn China into a responsible stakeholder in the international community. However, this approach does not seem to have produced the desired results. One question that needs to be addressed is whether the Chinese have understood what the Americans mean by “engagement” and “hedging.” Meanwhile, though the basic stance has been maintained, if we review the entire span of the administration, we can see that Washington’s China policy in Obama’s second term differed from that of his first term, with a number of turning points along the way.

Beijing’s Wariness of the G2 Concept

At the start of Obama’s first term, the United States placed high priority on China. Underlying this stance was the hope that China would serve as the growth leader for the world economy at a time when the United States was struggling with the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis. At this juncture, with prices of natural resources rising, the international community’s attention was starting to focus on the role of emerging countries.

When Obama visited China in November 2009, it was suggested that he was going to set forth the idea of G2—a “group of two” global leaders consisting of the United States and China. People at the time foresaw the formation of a system based on cooperation between these two superpowers at the global level. Some even used the term “Chimerica” to refer to the expected duopoly. But the administration in Beijing, then headed by President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, was leery of this concept.

One reason for Beijing’s wariness was the fear that a G2 system would impose heavier burdens on China, which still identified itself as a developing country. Also, though the Hu administration had been taking an increasingly hard line in its approach to external affairs, it had not totally abandoned the foreign policy stance of tao guang yang hui—the idea that China should keep a low profile on the international stage and focus on its own economic development, as advocated by Deng Xiaoping.

Beijing’s Emphasis on Sovereignty and National Security

The Obama administration, which used the term “strategic reassurance” as it moved to redefine the US-China relationship, accepted China’s rise and sought to have China join it in recognizing the existence of the “global commons” and in promoting world peace and stability. This posture, which was proposed by James Steinberg, deputy secretary of state during Obama’s first term, was supposed to lead to stronger ties between Washington and Beijing.

But in 2009, just as the Obama administration was getting underway, China shifted its foreign policy stance again, adopting an emphasis on sovereignty and national security issues alongside economic affairs. Beijing revealed its posture of challenging the existing regional and international orders in a number of ways, notably in the energetic pressing of its territorial claims in the South China Sea, its angry response to the granting of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to the Chinese human-rights activist Liu Xiaobo, and its uncooperative stance at the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. And in 2010, China held to its hard-line position regarding the South China Sea and started referring to its claims there as a “core interest.”

In the face of these developments, it became hard for the Obama administration to find conditions conducive to a repeat of its earlier G2 proposal. But it continued to pursue efforts to have China act as a responsible stakeholder on the global scene, and held to its basic engage-and-hedge policy.

Continuity and Change After Xi Jinping Takes the Helm

Even after Xi Jinping took over as China’s leader, becoming general secretary of the Communist Party in November 2012 and assuming the national presidency the following March, Washington initially kept its basic policy unchanged. When Xi and Obama held their first summit meeting in California in June 2013, Xi was probably fully prepared to accept the G2 concept. But the American side was no longer advocating such a setup. The Chinese proposed a “new model” of relations between major powers, but the United States did not explicitly endorse the idea. Even so, the United States continued its policy of respecting China, and it seems fair to say that a consensus was forming that saw the age ahead as one in which the two countries would be the world’s superpowers. With the help of strategic dialogue between them, Washington and Beijing built up a multifaceted, vertically thick structure for cooperation.

From 2014 to 2015, however, there was a major shift among America’s China specialists in their views of the country. In 2015, because of developments like China’s construction of military facilities in the South China Sea, Washington adopted a strongly vigilant stance toward Beijing, and it undertook “freedom of navigation operations” in this sea, including the dispatch of a warship. But these operations did nothing to change China’s position. And at around the same time, the United States sent a different warship to conduct joint exercises with China in the waters off Shanghai and invited the Chinese to participate in RIMPAC, the US Pacific Fleet’s multinational Rim of the Pacific exercise. Thus the United States continued to engage and hedge.

Failure to Restrain China’s Hard-Line Moves

From China’s perspective, these moves simply showed that the United States was mixing firmness and softness. Even as the Americans hedged against China, they continued to engage with it; this probably indicated to the Chinese that their behavior was not causing any significant problems.

In the face of China’s ongoing construction of military facilities in the South China Sea, the United States continued its freedom of navigation operations in the area. Following the July 2016 ruling against China’s territorial claims in this sea by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, Susan Rice, Obama’s national security advisor, visited China for talks. Then, at the September Group of 20 summit hosted by China in Hangzhou, Obama and Xi put on a show of accord at their first-day meeting by announcing their countries’ simultaneous ratification of the Paris Agreement on climate change, but at their second-day session they criticized each other’s positions on the South China Sea issue. This set of developments did nothing to restrain the Chinese, and a certain degree of bilateral tension has continued, as highlighted by China’s December seizure of a US Navy underwater drone operating in the South China Sea.

Elsewhere in the region, meanwhile, South Korea has fallen into a state of political volatility, and the Philippines has started to distance itself from the United States. In the context of developments like these, the Obama administration cannot be said to have done a satisfactory job of managing its alliances in the Western Pacific.

Uncertainty About Trump’s China Policy

After Donald Trump becomes president, will the United States continue to take the same basic approach toward China as it has under Obama? During his campaign for the presidency, Trump did not systematically attack the Obama administration’s foreign policy. But he did reveal his orientation toward unilateralism over internationalism, proclaiming that he would put “America first” and pledging to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement. He also said he would have America’s allies pay more for the cost of the US forces helping to defend them, and on the economic front he labeled China a currency manipulator and warned that his administration would impose high tariffs on Chinese imports.

But it has been noted that Trump may seek to make various deals directly with foreign leaders. During the campaign some Chinese observers predicted that a Trump presidency would be beneficial for China in terms of national security but detrimental on the economic front; others suggested that Trump would be more tractable than his rival Hillary Clinton, who was expected to take a harder line than Obama toward China.

After winning the election, President-elect Trump started to make statements that differed from his rhetoric during the campaign. Following his meeting in November with Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō, he reconfirmed his campaign pledge to pull out of the TPP free trade agreement, but there were also some unexpected developments, such as his phone conversation with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen and his remark challenging the “One China” principle (that both mainland China and Taiwan are part of a single country, though they are currently ruled by different governments).

Trump’s appointee as US ambassador to China is Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, who is said to be on friendly terms with President Xi. For secretary of state he picked MobilExxon Chief Executive Officer Rex Tillerson, who has no diplomatic experience but has conducted negotiations with China concerning gas field development in the South China Sea. Trump himself has come out with repeated warnings to Beijing on matters relating to the South China Sea, including the aforesaid Chinese seizure of an American underwater drone, and he has also spoken out in favor of the US freedom of navigation operations there.

To judge from his words and actions, Trump still does not have a well-thought-out China policy, and we cannot simplistically predict that his presidency will be advantageous for China on the security front and disadvantageous on the economic front. In addition, his precedent-breaking phone conversation with Taiwan’s President Tsai is one indication of a tendency to act impulsively on suggestions from people in his circle of advisors, which can lead to swings in his position. It is possible, however, that these swings will become less pronounced after he takes charge in the White House.

An “America First” Trump Administration and Japan’s China Policy

At this point it is hard to gauge what sort of China policy the United States will take under President Trump. But we can consider the prospects with regard to a number of points.

First, let us look at the question of whether the Trump administration will carry on the existing China policy of engagement and hedging. Keeping up this policy will require an orientation toward the goal of making China a responsible stakeholder in the international order, along with a vision of what sort of world we should aim for and what part China should play in achieving this vision.

If the new administration adopts a stance of unabashed America-first unilateralism, US policy toward China will probably shift greatly. In practice, however, unilateralism will probably amount simply to placing weight on America’s own interests and not a total rejection of internationalism. And so it seems likely that engagement and hedging will continue to a certain degree. But we may see the United States making deals with China in some areas and abruptly taking unforeseen diplomatic initiatives. Tokyo will need to be prepared for such developments and stay in close touch with its contacts in Washington.

Next, even if the Trump administration leans toward unilateralism, it is inconceivable that it will abandon internationalism in every respect. Instead, we can expect to see the new administration moving to withdraw or distance itself from frameworks in particular areas, fields, and regions that it sees as disadvantageous to the United States. Japan will also need to clearly discern which fields and regions this applies to and what degree of distance the Americans have in mind.

To the extent that the United States pulls back, will China step forward to fill the resulting gaps? Or will it similarly shift toward greater unilateralism? The answer will have a major bearing on Japan’s relationship with China. If Japan commits itself to the cause of internationalism, it may find itself working in some areas with countries like Germany and, at times, China in defense of this cause.

Another question to consider is whether the United States and China will be able to conclude some sort of bilateral deal or deals as great powers. This will depend on the nature of the great-power diplomacy the Trump administration adopts. The current strength of ties between Moscow and Beijing is partly a result of the imposition of sanctions on Russia by Western countries. If the United States improves its relations with Russia, the latter’s relations with China will be affected. What type of deal might Washington reach with Beijing in the context of this game of diplomacy among the great powers?

Will Washington Respect the “One China” Principle?

Particular concerns for Beijing at this point are the relations between the United States and Taiwan and the future of the One China principle. These issues are closely connected to the “1992 Consensus” under which Beijing and Taipei both affirmed their commitment to this principle. If the United States and Taiwan move to reject it, the resulting seismic waves will rock not just US-China relations but also the cross-strait relationship between Taiwan and the mainland.

Various motivations have been advanced for President-elect Trump’s decision to have a phone conversation with President Tsai, such as a desire to promote US arms sales to Taiwan. Will he refer to the One China principle again after he takes office? This will be the biggest single issue for Beijing. And developments in this connection will also be a major concern for Tokyo, which has built its relationships with both Beijing and Taipei on the basis of this principle.

(Originally published in Japanese on January 12, 2017. President-elect Donald Trump (right) greets Iowa Governor Terry Branstad (left) at a rally in Des Moines on December 8, 2016. © AP/Aflo.)


diplomacy United States China Asia-Pacific South China Sea Xi Jinping Donald Trump