We ended 2016 with a growing sense of uncertainty about the future direction of U.S.-China relations. President-elect Trump’s phone call with Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen, his expressed skepticism about America’s one-China policy and China’s seizure of an ocean drone in the South China Sea were only some of the post-election developments that have triggered anxiety among our members about U.S.-China ties as the United States completes its leadership transition and China moves closer to its own political high season, the 19th Party Congress.
This issue of Insight has contributions from prominent experts on what to expect this new year. While I lack the stature of those experts, let me share my own thoughts on the topic. I do so from the perspective of a former diplomat who worked in the Asian Affairs Office of the White House’s National Security Council during the 2001 transition from President Bill Clinton to President George W. Bush.
First, it is important to keep in mind that regardless of the outcome of the November presidential election, U.S.-China relations were headed for tougher times. Differences over North Korea, the South China Sea, cybersecurity and growing tensions over a range of trade and investment issues were already defining bilateral ties, even in the face of positive areas of cooperation. Thus, the question isn’t whether president-elect Trump will bring about a negative turn in U.S.-China relations but whether his election will further aggravate a trend already underway.
Second, Mr. Trump was an unconventional candidate and he remains an unconventional president-elect. We can’t assume that the patterns of the past will apply. By this I mean the assumption that the new president will begin with a tough approach on China only to end up in the same place where his predecessor left off. Mr. Trump and his advisors feel no special attachment to the rituals and catechisms of the past. In fact, they seem to take special delight in departing from past practice, perhaps in the belief that disruption in foreign affairs is as much a virtue as it is in the business world.
Will things settle down? Unfortunately, at this stage it is difficult to say. We lack the traditional analytical tools we would normally use to predict the new administration’s policy direction. Mr. Trump has not held public office before so there is no established track record. During the campaign he frequently mentioned China, but mainly in rhetorical terms and without detailed policy prescriptions. Thus, we cannot judge intent based on his spoken record. And we don’t know enough yet about his Asia policy advisors. That’s another blank on the canvas, at least as of late December as I write this column.
Third, all new administrations seek to differentiate themselves from their predecessors. Mr. Trump will be no different. The question is to what degree he uses China to show that there is a new sheriff in town. When Bush ’43 assumed office, there was an initial determination to correct for Mr. Clinton’s focus on China and pay more attention to America’s traditional Asian allies and partners, Japan in particular. But Taiwan was also part of the mix and the new administration offered a major arms package to Taiwan in April of Mr. Bush’s first year in office. How far this new approach would have gone we will never know as the September 11th terrorist attacks redefined the administration’s national security strategy and highlighted China’s strategic importance.
Thus, we should expect the Trump administration to undertake policy reviews and to adjust current policies. Whether this results in dramatic changes or just some tinkering around the edges is the question. AmCham Shanghai can play a role in shaping the outcome, as can all of our members. We must convey to the new administration, and the broader American public, how a healthy commercial relationship between the United States and China is good for both our countries. We may take this for granted as a fundamental truth, but as the election results demonstrated, many American voters see the world differently.