Risks to U.S.-China Relations Under Trump

December 13, 2016

Xi and Putin at the Moscow Victory Day Parade, May 2015. CREDIT: kremlin.ru

DEVIN STEWART: Hi, I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City. I'm sitting here with Jeff Wasserstrom. He is a professor of history from the University of California, Irvine.

Great to have you here, Jeff.

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: It's great to be here again.

DEVIN STEWART: It is great to speak with you today in New York City, Jeff. Thank you for dropping by on your book tour on China. Tell us why you are in New York City.

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: I am here to try to draw some attention to The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern China, which I edited. It covers the sweep of Chinese history with chapters by different people—academics—and it ends with a journalist, Ian Johnson, writing about the presence of the past in contemporary China. It is a beautifully illustrated book, just right for anybody on your holiday gift list who is a history buff.

DEVIN STEWART: Looking at Chinese history, we are in the midst of a huge news cycle that seems to be unending on U.S.-China relations with Trump making provocative gestures toward China. Can you give us a sense of where we are right now with U.S.-China relations as the Trump administration is about to come in?

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: It's a really crazy moment. There was the phone call between Trump and Taiwan's president, and that itself was a dramatic thing. It had not happened—that kind of direct contact between an American president and a Taiwan president—in decades.

But then it was exacerbated by Trump following up—once he got criticized for that—with some very provocative tweets about how he didn't have to ask China for permission; did they ask permission from America about building massive bases in the South China Sea, and some other things, which really ratcheted things up. It was also really problematic because the point is that the disputed islands in the South China Seas aren't American-claimed places; they are ones that our allies claim and China claims, and so to say that it's really up to us was confirming what is a Chinese fear, which is that America views the Pacific as our terrain.

A week later, after people in the Trump circle had said: "But this doesn't mean reconsidering the One-China policy," Trump went on television last weekend and said: "Well, One-China policy is up for grabs and up for negotiation. We'll have to get some concessions from China to keep up with this idea."

DEVIN STEWART: What is One-China policy?

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: It's a very strange idea; it's a very strange concept, which is based on this fiction that at some point in the future Taiwan and the mainland will once again be one country. It was something that grew out of the fact that after Mao's Communist Party drove the Nationalist Party into exile on Taiwan with Chiang Kai-shek, who had been head of the Republic of China on the mainland, then going to Taiwan—Chiang Kai-shek was convinced that at some point—he was just in "temporary strategic retreat"—he would retake the mainland. And the mainland was convinced that at some time they would complete the grand mission they had done to take over the mainland and also take over Taiwan.

So both sides came up with this idea that there was only one China, and the question was: Was the legitimate capital of it in Taipei or in Beijing?

DEVIN STEWART: That's an ambiguous question. There's no answer to that, is there?

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: There's no answer to it, or the answer is to say just accept the reality that Taiwan is its own entity.

DEVIN STEWART: This has been called "strategic ambiguity" by U.S. government officials.

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: I think that is a very good way to put it. It's not that you have to actually spell out what the scenario will end up being, but you suspend disbelief and say: "Let's just act as though that so we can talk about other things and get other kinds of things done."

There was a period in which the United States and China were working together on a variety of things, including moving toward working together on climate change, though that's now up for grabs, too, in other ways. It actually allowed the mainland and Taiwan to have some kinds of interactions—tourists could move between them; people could visit family members. There were all kinds of ways in which, while keeping this fiction there, there were some possibilities for more interaction.

DEVIN STEWART: One person, a close friend of ours, has talked about this as the "basketball theory," where if you stand in one position and someone fouls you, it's their problem, but if you're constantly moving and you foul them, it's your problem.

If there is ambiguity here in the relationship, and there is, as you're calling it, a "fiction," couldn't that invite some risk to the relationship? In other words, does Trump have a point that maybe the One-China policy might be revisited and made clearer in terms of what the U.S. intent is?

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: Backing up before that—I think there are ways in which you could say that having more interaction in an official level working toward a place where the American administration deals more directly with the president of Taiwan—Taiwan is a country that's gone through some quite wonderful transitions.

In the 1970s and even early 1980s, neither Taiwan nor the mainland were governed in ways that most Americans would view as very admirable; they were both authoritarian states with a lot of censorship of the press and had authoritarian leaders. Taiwan in the early 1980s was led by the son of Chiang Kai-shek, the last person you'd really expect to oversee a loosening up and liberalization.

But then just quite wonderfully it did move to having elections; it's a multiparty state; there are two parties that have taken turns being in power. There are a lot of admirable things. It now has a woman in charge who is the first woman to have a top position in an Asian country who wasn't related to any man who'd previously held power. There are lots of things to admire and to want to move forward, but to move forward in a kind of steady, pragmatic, thoughtful way, not ricocheting from tweet to tweet.

DEVIN STEWART: There's a recent Reuters article—here's the headline: "Selling bonds, dropping bombs: How China could respond to Trump's Taiwan talk," and they list about 10 possibilities here, ranging from cutting ties with Washington, which is probably the most extreme; to undermining the consensus on cyber issues; killing momentum for market access; and even getting tough on American companies, preventing them from doing business in China.

What types of things, if anything, could a more tense relationship with China produce? First of all, should we be worrying about this kind of stuff? If so, what do you expect?

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: I think there are reasons to worry about it. I'm not an economist, but it seems to me that because the U.S. economy and the Chinese economy are so intertwined now and because the Chinese Communist Party's leaders are worried about slowing growth rates, they won't want to do anything that will ricochet back and hurt their economy.

The thing I worry about is a ratcheting up of tensions over the South China Seas and the idea of symbolic actions there. Xi Jinping has staked his legitimacy in part on appeals to a kind of nationalism that under Communist Party rule—this is a longtime story of the Communist Party, but it's one they've kind of doubled down on recently. Not until we came along was China really able to control the territory that the Chinese government used to be able to control, and, if anything, raise its international profile and have more return to that position of being the most powerful country in the region. Because of that part of the legitimacy story—another is about economic growth and things like that—the economic threats or back-and-forth could hurt the economic story, but it seems to me that doubling down on this nationalist one, projecting symbolic power over the South China Seas, could fit in with that.

Then you have the possibility of accidental things—of two planes hitting each other—and we've been there before.


JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: In 2001, there was a collision between an American surveillance plane and a Chinese jet that was buzzing it, and the pilot died, and the American jet made an emergency landing on Chinese soil on Hainan Island, and this was a very tense moment. In April of 2001, a lot of people were saying that going forward this will be the decade where U.S.-China relations were the most dangerous thing in the world. Then 9/11 happened and scrambled up the geopolitical kaleidoscope, and we were in a different place. But now we're back to worrying about that.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you think this is an echo today to something like 16 years ago in the early Bush administration, or is it completely different?

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: Things are very different in the world. The issues that came to the fore after 9/11 haven't gone away, so it's a different area. I think it's important to remember the kind of volatility as well as the potential for collaboration in various moments in the past between the United States and China.

DEVIN STEWART: What about the argument that some people in the finance industry—some economists—are saying that perhaps Trump is bringing up more tensions with China right now because we're at a moment where there's a pivot in the power balance between China and the United States, where China is actually on the economic decline while the United States is ascending, and that Trump is seizing this time to assert more dominance in American power. Do you buy that?

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: I don't see that, or I don't see that in these terms. There are other ways in which power between the countries is shifting. I think somehow that the potential of the United States playing a lesser role in some of these international structures is providing an opportunity for China to take the lead on things like climate change, which is something that would have been unimaginable 10 years ago.

In fact, it's this kind of reversal that—10 years ago there was the thing: What do we have to do to try to pressure China to be a good stakeholder in the international arena? Now China has the opportunity to say: "Well, what does it take to make America a better stakeholder?" I don't think this has completely shifted, but the terms of the debate are different.

There is vulnerability. The Chinese Communist Party has all kinds of problems, all kinds of reasons to be feeling both that it is in a stronger and stronger condition but also that it is vulnerable. There are lots of problems within it, but I don't see a scenario where it falls, even though it's always paranoid since 1989 after seeing many regimes like it collapse. Many think that it's feeling in some ways like it's living on borrowed time at the same that it's feeling that it's on a roll. It's a very strange combination.

DEVIN STEWART: Sure. We shouldn't expect there to be any kind of regime change in China in the near future at all?

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: It's hard to see the scenario where that would happen, and I think one of the things that's important to remember is what's happening in other parts of the world always affects what's going—sometimes we think of China or the United States too much as operating in their own worlds.

One of the things for people pushing for change in a society that's under authoritarian control is: What are the models out there that you would say: "If only we were governed more like X country," and sometimes that was the United States—and not just with Trump; before Trump. The government shutdowns I think took an enormous toll on people within a country like China, who were saying: "If only our system could be a bit more like theirs." It made it too easy for the Communist Party propaganda, which always accentuates problems within America, to say: "Really? Would you rather have a structure like that where the government literally can't get anything done?"

DEVIN STEWART: Is conflict with the United States going to help the Chinese regime look like it's protecting its country with its people? Is there sort of a weird paradoxical countereffect where ratcheting up tensions with China actually can help the Chinese regime?

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: I think in a strange way. I think Xi Jinping has presented himself as the kind of strongman that's needed in a time of global instability. I once wrote a piece for Time magazine that was about bad news in other parts of the world can be good news for the Chinese Communist Party. I think the posturing—the Communist Party saying: "Oh, look at the United States. It wants to keep China down"—if people start to say: "Come on. Is that really an accurate thing?" Then the Communist Party can point to, can quote, Trump's tweets and statements.

So, yes, in a way this can play into it on both sides. I think that the more belligerent China is coming back will in some ways help the Trump story about China being a danger in the world.

DEVIN STEWART: Nobody likes to try to forecast the future, but I'm going to ask you anyway: What should we expect from Trump in regards to U.S.-China relations? If you don't want to predict the future, then what should we be looking for? What things should we pay close attention to?

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: I'm glad you gave me the out, there, because I like to then say: "I'm a historian, not a political scientist," even though political scientists are wary of predicting at times like this.

I think one thing we should be watching for is that Trump has already shown an ability to change positions quite quickly. He's shown that he can get along with and express admiration for a strongman leader who appeals to making his country great again, which you could say is something characteristic of Putin, but also characteristic of Xi.

It would be possible that after a period of real heightened tensions that they then come up with some kind of recognition of the perils, but you just don't know. Or it could just be that those very similarities make it increasingly hard for them to take a long—

I think we shouldn't be blinded to the similarities between a certain kind of "make-my-country-great-again" muscular nationalism showing up in different places, different parts of the world at the same time, which can lead to the proponents of that rubbing each other the wrong way. You've discussed Abe in this way, and Abe and Xi Jinping, it's partly because of parallels between them that they've stoked nationalism in each other's countries by their moves. That would be one scenario we could see with the United States and China.

DEVIN STEWART: Maybe we should conclude with that. You are pointing to an article that you and I just wrote in The Diplomat that pointed to how populism is a global trend; it's not just something that's happening in the West; it's not just Brexit and Trump; it's not just Western Europe; it's not just Central Europe; it's all across the Eurasian landmass and also in South America.

How much anxiety should we put into this global trend? Using your lens as a historian, the rise of populism all around the world—I think the average person would say: "Oh my god, we should be alarmed about this." How do we convince ourselves that we're not in the 1930s or the 1910s?

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: History doesn't ever repeat itself exactly, so we should also think about some things that are different, that there are international organizations that are more robust than they were then. Whether they'll be robust enough, that's a different question—that's the worry, and the worry in America is: How robust are the checks and balances. Similarly, thinking about the world, how robust are these larger mechanisms?

As we're talking now, even though the news cycle has been heavy on the United States and China, today it's moved on to Aleppo, and there's going to be a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) meeting about that, and so one of the questions is: Is there still a way in which the international structures—set in place in part to try to prevent repetition of those earlier things—will this reveal the weakness of those, or will there be a way in which they can move forward?

I guess we shouldn't forget that there was some optimism even a year or two ago about the moving toward convergence on climate change, and maybe there will be some way to get out the other side. It's a very worrisome moment, I think, because of the strength of this kind of nationalism in different places is always a combustible thing.

DEVIN STEWART: Just to conclude with one last question: I'm not asking you to predict the future, but if you were to describe how you think Beijing operates to provocations, do you think their general disposition is to try to reduce conflict and reduce tensions, or do you think there are elements that would want to stoke it?

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: The inner workings of the inner circle of Beijing are such a black box, and now with Xi Jinping in particular setting an agenda, we don't really know until after the fact if there are different factions or different groups. I do think Xi Jinping has shown himself to move toward responding in a way that projects strength, which in this moment would mean needing to respond to these kinds of things.

Whether over time there could be a way in which the overall concern about wanting to have stability both within the country and more broadly could lead toward a willingness to find a way around it, I don't think we should give up hope in some way forward. But it's very tough, especially given what we know of the personalities of the two leaders involved. Again, it's a worrisome time.

DEVIN STEWART: Thanks anyway, Jeff. Let's hope for the best.

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: Yes. Thanks for having me on again. It's been great.

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