The upcoming summit between US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping offers an early test of the Trump Administration’s willingness to depart from the policies of global «unipolar» domination and pointless confrontation that have characterized the past three American presidencies. The very fact that the summit is taking place this early in the Trump presidency is an encouraging sign.
The first thing to keep in mind is the American side’s lack of unity of purpose. Trump himself, and probably Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, can be expected to approach the summit in a businesslike «let’s make a deal» fashion. Their primary goal, far more important than anything else, can be expected to be redressing what they see as a massive imbalance in US-China trade.
But we also have to consider the influence of Trump’s national security team, which is dominated by military men who think all problems derive from insufficient American «leadership» and inadequate use or threat of force. While they are more circumspect in relation to China than they would be about, for example, how to approach ISIS or Iran, their default position is defined by military responses: air and naval challenges to China’s claims in the South China Sea, deploying the THAAD system in South Korea (ROK), threatening a military response to North Korean (DPRK) missile tests.
Finally, we still have the baneful influence of the US permanent («Deep State») bureaucracy and Barack Obama holdovers, for whom American global dominance and attempts to dictate other countries’ internal affairs and external policies are an article of faith. (We can probably thank this group for ramming through Montenegro’s NATO accession this week, after months of heroic resistance by Senator Rand Paul.)
Knowing these divisions, the Chinese will certainly approach the Americans with wariness. Beijing’s task will be how to assess the relative weight of Trump’s economic and trade imperatives – which China will be loath to rebalance in the Americans’ favor but may have little choice – versus the PRC’s vital national security interests. Regarding the latter, the two most important are the Korean Peninsula and the South China Sea, where the American military men and the Deep Staters will want to dictate to Beijing. The challenge for the Chinese will be how to leverage Trump’s relative lack of interest in security matters and give primacy to his economic goals.
In my view, the optimal outcome for both sides would be for Beijing to make compromises on trade in exchange for American concessions in the security sphere that in effect recognize a Chinese security sphere in the western Pacific. This can and should result in significant US walk-back of policies that pointlessly threaten China’s security but don’t enhance American security:
US policymakers routinely demand more «pressure» on Beijing to restrain the DPRK. Reasonable Chinese initiatives, such as the recent proposal for mutual moratoria on DPRK missile tests and on US-ROK military exercises were summarily dismissed by the US. Chinese (and Russian) concerns about THAAD system coverage of their sovereign territory were similarly ignored. Seemingly the US side does not comprehend that American military threats and countermeasures encourage even more warlike and erratic responses from Pyongyang. Failure to appreciate the counterproductive impact of America policy is largely due to the conviction that no bad result can ever be Washington’s fault – which would constitute «blaming America.» It will be a formidable task for the Chinese to convey why they have a vital, nonnegotiable security interest in the survival of the DPRK: if the DPRK were, for any reason, to cease to exist, a unified Korea under the Seoul government allied with the US would mean the prospect of American forces on the Chinese border. (The Americans might deny that, but consider the expansion of NATO with the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and collapse of the USSR.) Such a presence would be an intolerable threat to China’s vital national security interests, hence Beijing’s need for the DPRK to continue to exist as long as the Americans are in the ROK. Given Trump’s expressed concerns about how our allies take advantage of us and don’t pay for their own defense (and in the case of the South Koreans, also are killing US jobs in a lopsided trade relationship), an open-ended discussion should be proposed as to under what circumstances US forces might eventually be withdrawn from the peninsula. Washington must understand that stepping back from current provocative actions could, with Chinese help, achieve future conditions where US security guarantee to the ROK become irrelevant.
The South China Sea
American critics of Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea cite two principles: a supposed US interest in freedom of navigation and open sea lanes, and the claimed illegality of China’s building militarized artificial islands and claiming the waters around them. Regarding navigation of the South China Sea, it seemingly escapes American notice that China in no way is threatening sea lanes and that, given the relative volume of container shipping, the sea lanes are of benefit to the PRC much more than to the US. Regarding the islands, the American position is largely an expression of our desire always to be the referee of the legitimacy of other nations’ actions, whether we have an interest or not. (Would China care if the US built artificial islands in the Caribbean and claimed them as sovereign American territory? Of course not.) Xi no doubt will make it clear that her islands in the South China Sea are sovereign Chinese territory and that military probing by the US will eventually lead to unfortunate consequences that neither side wants. Proposals guaranteeing other countries’ rights to legitimate transit could have some positive impact, especially if they would be acceptable to US regional partners, notably the Philippines.
It will not be an easy task for Xi to extract meaningful retreat by Washington on either of these strategic issues. Nor will Trump find the Chinese a pushover on trade. But if deal-making impulses can replace the policies of diktat that have characterized American policymaking for a quarter of a century, as successful «win-win» summit could set a standard for future progress in other forums.