Trump Gives Beijing a Lesson in the Art of the Deal

The president’s moves are neither capricious nor naive, though they lack a certain diplomatic finesse.

President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, July 8.
President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, July 8. PHOTO: POOL/REUTERS

With only six months in office, President Trump has put his signature on America’s China policy. A strategy that may appear capricious to his critics in fact has a logic consistent with Mr. Trump’s guiding beliefs. He sought a deal with China, then concluded he would not get one, and so acted in what he believes is America’s best interest.

Mr. Trump’s approach is undoubtedly transactional, but it’s surprisingly realistic given China’s kid-glove treatment by most U.S. presidents. In potentially putting Beijing and Washington at loggerheads, it is also undeniably risky.

In June, the White House delivered three blows to China. First, it imposed sanctions on a Chinese bank and two individuals for abetting North Korea’s financial transactions. Second, it listed China in the category of worst offenders in human trafficking. Finally, it announced a $1.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan. The Trump administration also made several lesser-order jabs, among them calling for more freedom in Hong Kong and conducting another freedom-of-navigation operation near the contested Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. It did all this as Chinese President Xi Jinping tried to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the return of Hong Kong to China from Britain. 

Any one of these actions would normally be enough to rock Sino-U.S. relations, at least for a while. Taken together, they constitute a significant break from the past two decades of diplomatic engagement between the two powers. Is this an enduring shift on the part of the Trump administration? Or simply shots across Beijing’s bow to get China to cooperate more with Washington and behave better abroad?

To Mr. Trump’s critics, the moves represent a recognition of his initial naiveté regarding China. When the president tweeted on June 20 that China’s efforts to help on North Korea had not worked out, he was derided for his apparent faith in Beijing’s promises and for flipping his opinion so quickly. The latest turnaround was seen as part of a pattern stretching back to the campaign and transition, when candidate and President-elect Trump warned that he would not shrink from putting economic and political pressure on China. Then, soon after taking office, the president radically shifted to a far more cooperative stance, going so far as to host Mr. Xi at Mar-a-Lago for a family-style summit.

But Mr. Trump’s moves are neither capricious nor naive, even if they do lack a certain diplomatic finesse. His interest has always been in the bottom line, and diplomatic niceties of the kind that have suffused Sino-U.S. relations since Richard Nixon’s epochal 1972 visit to Beijing are useful to him only if progress is being made.

Last month’s actions put Beijing on notice that Mr. Trump’s transactional approach is real, and so are the potential consequences for failing to make a deal. Moreover, each move serves some larger U.S. purpose, whether strategic (Taiwan) or tactical (North Korea). Chinese leaders have long been accustomed to strong words and no action from Washington; now they will have to consider how far the Trump administration may go.

By publicly calling out China, Mr. Trump risks chipping away at Beijing’s carefully polished image as a global leader and contributor to stability. Beijing, already upset by criticism leveled by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis about China’s militarization of the South China Sea islands, lashed back at the administration’s moves, especially the arms sale to Taiwan.

With a critical Communist Party Congress coming up in the fall, Mr. Xi will be loath to be seen as unable or unwilling to combat an activist U.S. policy in Asia. He may look for ways to check Mr. Trump’s recent moves, such as ratcheting up economic and diplomatic pressure on U.S. allies like South Korea, which is already in Beijing’s doghouse for accepting a new U.S. missile defense system. Mr. Xi may also try to regain some standing by challenging the U.S. Navy in the South China Sea.

Mr. Trump has made clear that he means what he says about deal-making. China said it would help and did not. That’s enough for Mr. Trump to put the world’s two most powerful countries on a potential collision course. He might be bluffing or he might be in earnest. Either way, the American president’s sharp dose of realism has the potential to reshape the world’s most important relationship.

Mr. Auslin is a fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

Appeared in the July 13, 2017, print edition.

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