The Trump-Xi Summit: A Rocky Relationship Takes Center Stage

By James B. Steinberg & Michael E. O’Hanlon

(Brookings | April 7, 2017) President Xi Jinping’s upcoming meeting with President Trump is a crucially important opportunity to take stock of the state of U.S.-China relations. Prior to taking office, Trump advocated a tougher line on China, decrying China’s economic policies and, to a lesser extent, its actions ranging from military activities in the South China Sea to its support for North Korea. He even implied that absent progress, he might rethink the long-standing “One China” policy.

“These actions require a resolute and sustained U.S. response, an effort which began with President Obama’s ‘rebalance’ policy and which must be reinforced by the new administration.”

The president’s post-inauguration letter to Xi and the follow-up visit by Secretary Tillerson seem to have dispelled the prospect of a radical shift, but the concerns Trump has expressed mirror a view voiced by many politicians and China scholars—that China is pursuing a range of policies hostile to U.S. interests, and that a more assertive American approach is needed to reverse the deteriorating trend in U.S.-China relations.

But while many Americans are rightly worried about China’s expansionist tendencies in the South China Sea, assertive behavior towards Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea, and theft of American intellectual property as well as problematic activities in cyberspace, there remains a real danger of a difficult summit—and a general downturn in U.S.-China relations more broadly—if we fail to address these concerns in proper perspective. With China now well established as the world’s number two military power, the consequences of a serious deterioration in the relationship could be worse than at any point since the Korean War.

We share many of the concerns about China’s actions in the South and East China Sea, its application of pressure on its neighbors to conform to its desired policies, and its failure to address economic policies, which are inconsistent with its avowed support for open and fair trade. These actions require a resolute and sustained U.S. response, an effort which began with President Obama’s “rebalance” policy and which must be reinforced by the new administration. Additionally, the Trump administration has a crucial need to sustain U.S. regional economic engagement in the wake of Washington’s rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.

At the same time, it is important not to lose sight of the positive dimensions of Sino-U.S. relations, not only on cooperative endeavors such as climate change, but also in managing the areas of our considerable differences. There is a danger that in overstating the state of the “China threat” the new administration might be driven to adopt policies that would exacerbate, rather than stabilize, U.S.-China relations by skewing the country’s China policies too far towards confrontation. What is often seen as prudent “hedging” against future Chinese hostility could become instead a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The record over the past several years has been mixed. For example, in the South China Sea, there are serious questions about whether China is adhering (in spirit as well as letter) to the commitment that Xi Jinping made to President Obama not to militarize the disputed islands. At the same time, China has, at least thus far, taken a low-key response to the 2016 decision of the Law of the Sea arbitration panel (which rejected almost of all China’s positions) and avoided provocative acts, such as unilaterally declaring an Air Defense Identification Zone or interdicting shipping in waters it claims. It has also agreed to a protocol on naval safety at sea with the United States.

On cyber, a number of prominent U.S. experts reported significant declines in cyber economic espionage following the 2015 Obama-Xi “agreement,” while former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper last year simply stated that the “jury is out” regarding China’s compliance. On North Korea, China supported new sanctions following North Korea’s missile launch and announced plans to halt coal imports, while at the same time engaging in economic reprisals against South Korea for its decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense antimissile system. On Taiwan, China appears to have taken some steps to pressure President Tsai Ing-wen to accept the 1992 consensus on cross-strait relations (reducing mainland tourists, blocking Taiwan’s participation in ICAO). But it has prudently reacted in rather low-key fashion to President Tsai’s famous phone call with president-elect Trump and her meetings with senior Republican leaders during her January stopover in the United States …

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James B. Steinberg is an INSCT Distinguished Policy Advisor and University Professor, Social Science, International Affairs, and Law, Syracuse University. Michael E. O’Hanlon is Co-Director of the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence.