100 days in, it remains too early to tell what will become of the Sino-American relationship during the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump.
Prior to assuming office on January 20, 2017, Trump had taken a decidedly hard line toward Beijing. During the campaign, he accused China of “raping” America with artificially cheap imports, promised to designate the country a currency manipulator on day one of his administration, and suggested slapping a 45% tariff on Chinese imports to the United States. As president-elect, he broke with diplomatic tradition by accepting a phone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and followed it up by questioning why the United States should be bound by the four-decade-old “One China” policy unless China plays ball on other issues, including trade. He criticized China for refusing to help curtail the development of North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program. And, when pressed on Russia’s role in hacking the 2016 presidential election, Trump and his advisors often responded by redirecting attention to China’s extensive cyber-snooping.
In the early days of the administration, U.S. policy toward China at times seemed to drift between confrontational and confused. During his Senate confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was asked whether he would support a more aggressive U.S. approach in the South China Sea in light of China’s recent island-building and deployment of military assets on disputed features. He responded: “[w]e’re going to have to send China a clear signal that first, the island-building stops, and second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed.” Shortly after Trump’s inauguration, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer appeared to double down on Tillerson’s remarks, with a pledge to “protect our interests” in the South China Sea and “make sure that we defend international territories from being taken over by one country.” Attempting to parse these statements, analysts frantically wondered whether the incoming administration was threatening to go to war with China over rocks and reefs—speculation that was largely put to rest by reassurance from Defense Secretary James Mattis on his first trip to Asia.
Trump’s personnel appointments are a mixed bag of ideological orientation. A number of senior positions have been filled by economic nationalists and China hawks such as economist Peter Navarro (National Trade Council) and media executive Stephen Bannon (Chief Strategist), but other appointments—including investment banker Gary Cohn (National Economic Council), hedge fund manager Stephen Mnuchin (Treasury Secretary), and Iowa Governor Terry Branstad (U.S. Ambassador to China)—have veered toward the conventional. At the 100-day mark, Chinese and U.S. observers are still in wait-and-see mode as many key foreign-policy positions below the cabinet level remain unfilled. Meanwhile, Beijing has largely opted for a tenor of measured patience as Washington’s China policy emerges in tweetable fits and starts. With U.S. policy unsettled, the Chinese leadership has sought to cultivate personal relationships, reportedly establishing a “busy back channel” through Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
The Kushner connection helped lay the groundwork for a remarkably upbeat April meeting between President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. The visit itself resulted in relatively few concrete policy achievements—the two sides announced a four-track U.S.-China Comprehensive Dialogue overseen by the two presidents as a replacement for the sprawling Strategic & Economic Dialogue, as well as a “100-day plan” of trade discussions, which Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross described as hopefully including “way stations of accomplishment along the way.” Although the outcomes may have been limited, the Florida meeting seems to have defied even President Trump’s prediction of a “very difficult” first encounter. In interviews following the meeting, Trump glowed about his “great chemistry” with Xi Jinping, and Chinese media outlets joined the U.S. president in praising the goodwill and positive tone that were established.
Nowhere is goodwill and trust between the United States and China currently needed more than in maintaining stability on the Korean peninsula. North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear test in September, 2016 and, in the face of fresh UN Security Council sanctions, carried out a series of missile tests in the initial months of Trump’s presidency. It is unclear precisely how far Pyongyang has progressed toward the capability to miniaturize a nuclear warhead and mount it on a ballistic missile capable of striking the continental United States, but as its weapons program accelerates, U.S. officials worry that time is running out to prevent a full nuclear breakout.
On his first trip to Asia, Secretary Tillerson declared the end of the U.S. policy of “strategic patience” and announced that U.S. military action against North Korea is “on the table.” Prior to his meeting with Xi, President Trump warned that the United States would act unilaterally to solve the North Korean problem if China did not use its influence to ratchet up pressure on Pyongyang. In Florida, Trump conveyed to Xi, over chocolate cake, that he had ordered a missile strike in response to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons in an attack on civilians—a decision Vice President Mike Pence later cited in cautioning North Korea not to test Trump’s resolve. Amid signs the North was preparing another nuclear test in late April, a U.S. aircraft carrier strike group was dispatched to the region in a show of force. (Its arrival came after a bizarre sequence in which the President and other senior officials announced the carrier had been diverted to waters off the Korean peninsula two weeks earlier, though in fact it had not.) With signaling unclear and tensions on the peninsula at their highest level in decades, Trump’s first 100 days came to a close with Chinese leaders warning of “storm clouds gathering” and Xi urging Trump to exercise restraint.
The Mar-a-Lago meeting appears to have marked something of a turning point in Trump’s views on China and North Korea. In a remarkable interview, the president acknowledged that entering the meeting, he “felt pretty strongly that [China] had a tremendous power” over Pyongyang, but “after listening [to Xi Jinping explain the history of China and Korea] for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy. . . . [I]t’s not what you would think.” In the same interview, Trump further revealed that he had offered China more favorable trade terms in exchange for help with North Korea. Days later, Trump expressed “absolute confidence” that Xi was working “very, very hard” on the North Korea problem—referring, in part, to China’s implementation of a ban on coal imports from the North.
These statements may offer a glimpse into the future of U.S.-China relations in a Trump administration—defined by unpredictability, policy flexibility, and a bluntly transactional approach. Indeed, the experience of the first 100 days suggests that President Trump’s China policy will be anything but preordained. Just as he reaffirmed the “One China” policy in early February at Xi Jinping’s request, after having openly questioned it prior to taking office, Trump also reversed his longstanding charge of Chinese currency manipulation following the Florida meeting, citing China’s unprecedented assistance with North Korea as one reason for doing so.
These rhetorical and policy shifts have given rise to commentary on the limits of Trump’s transactional foreign policy. They have also exposed Trump and his aides to accusations of conflicts of interest—particularly given the Chinese government’s recent eyebrow-raising approvals of trademarks for the president’s business and that of his daughter Ivanka, as well as the aborted negotiations for a lucrative Manhattan real-estate deal between Jared Kushner’s family business and Chinese insurer Anbang.
Principles aside, the coming months may test the instrumental value of unpredictability (contra “credibility”) in U.S. foreign relations. Xi Jinping is surely in no mood for the former, especially as he approaches a crucial leadership transition at the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th Party Congress this fall. That could spell a rocky few months ahead for U.S.-China ties as the smiling atmospherics of Mar-a-Lago fade from view. While the goal of enhanced reciprocity in the U.S.-China relationship is far from controversial, over the longer term, it is reasonable to worry whether tactical transactionalism risks overlooking important strategic concerns; not least among these are the two countries’ macroeconomic imbalances and precarious “economic codependency.” But, it would be imprudent at this stage for any observer to predict with confidence that Trump’s unorthodox approach will fail. Whatever vices or virtues it may entail, his style is without precedent in the history of the modern American presidency.
* Executive director of the Paul Tsai China Center. He is the senior research scholar and lecturer in law at Yale Law School, where he focuses on U.S.-China relations and Chinese legal reform. He also teaches at Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.