Forwarding China-US Relations through Stabilities in the Post-Election Transition and Beyond

By Yang Jiemian* 

On November 8, 2016 the one-and-half-year-long U.S. presidential campaign finally came to an end with the Republican candidate Donald Trump being elected as the 45th President of the United States. Besides, the Republicans also won majority both at the Senate and the House. Given the fact that Mr. Trump talked a lot of unconventional ideas and especially the accusations against China, there is much attention to what impacts this election outcome will bring to China-U.S. relations.

I. Revisiting the Election

This just ended election mainly focused on US domestic affairs. On the one hand, the United States is in urgent need of tackling such domestic problems as re-energizing economy, re-formulating social policies and re-considering immigration policies. On the other hand, the election process did not focus on the issues but was full of endless, sometimes even shameless personal in-fights. However, the Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton was seen as a part of the problems because of her political and personal backgrounds. On the contrary, Mr. Trump had never been in the public service, which enabled him to attack Hillary Clinton as a problem-maker and depicted himself as a critical part of the solutions. 

While stressing the election’s main focus was domestic agenda, this does not say that the international factor played no role. This election also gave outlets to the various kinds of Americans for expressing their concerns over the U.S. declining status and impotence in managing the important international issues. The United States finds it increasingly difficult to preserve its political leadership and attraction in the world and maintain its security and military dominance as well. At least three international factors helped the election of Mr. Trump. The first is that the United States is caught in the world trends but does not know how to deal with them, especially the multipolarization, globalization as well as mounting terrorism and extremism. The eight-year rule by the Democrat administration thus became an easy target to be blamed for everything from the messy situation in the Middle East to weak position in global competition. The second is that the American ruling establishment can provide neither forward-looking thoughts nor effective strategies and policies for the future world. Hillary Clinton was vehemently attacked for not being able to gain American leadership in the world. The third is that Mr. Trump used unsystematic but effective expressions to outline American future foreign policies such as caring more about the US affairs, sharing costs with allies, firming up policies towards foreign competition and winning back respects.

Domestic and external factors combined, many of the common Americans cried for changing the adverse effects from the globalization and providing more job and psychological security in today’s world. As regards the establishment, they were still indecisive on what and how to do in order to preserve a strong US presence and status. Consequentially, the inability to meet these challenges led to political divisions that are transcending political parties, regions and spectrums of social status. These political divisions also reflect the difficulties of readjusting the allocation of political powers and achieving political consensus on the roadmaps to the future. Under this context, emerging are various kinds of thoughts competing for attention, domination and implementation. Therefore, the populist mood and thoughts have come to prominence and Mr. Trump shrewdly made them into the slogans of America First and Making America Great Again.

Elections are full of accidental and incidental causes. The Hillary team believed that the FBI last minute meddling with Hillary’s email issue eventually turned the latter’s would-be victory into a defeat. But many disagreed and gave other reasons. For instance, President Obama attributed Hillary Clinton’s defeat to her slackness as a result of over-self-confidence. Anyway, Mr. Trump won the election by a landslide victory of Electoral College voters although Hillary Clinton claimed two million more popular votes. This means that the political divisions will remain unchanged and political in-fights will continue in the upcoming years.

During this election, China was both realistic and prudent as it fully respected the choice of the American voters. Given this election’s complicity and uncertainty, China made it its main policy to forward its relations with the United States by stability. 

As regards attitudes, China adopted its usual way of wait-and-see. But this is not a passive one. On the one hand, China continued to add more positive energy to China-US relations such as high level contacts and closer military exchanges. On the other hand, China believed that the further enhancement of its own strength would be a constructive factor in its relations with the United States. With decades of multiplying national strength and enhanced understanding of the U.S. elections, China was more mature and cool-headed this time than ever before. To certain extent, this attitude facilitates the stability and predictability of China-US relations.

As regards institutions, China worked in three ways. One is to make the established institutions and mechanisms survive the election as much as possible. The Chinese government had been working throughout the US election period. This had been responded by President Obama. He told President Xi during their last official meeting on November 19, 2016 that he had already introduced the importance of US-China relations to Mr. 

Trump and emphasized that a smooth transition of bilateral relations should be realized. Two is to strengthen the domestic supports both in China and the United States. China gigantically promoted state-province and local exchanges, people-to-people interaction and economic transaction. Three, China took no position on who would be the winner. This made a sharp contrast to some other countries such as Japan. This position derives from both traditional Chinese culture of Golden Median Way advocated by Confucius and present China’s increasing self-confidence in managing the China-U.S. relations.

As regards specific issues, China worked with the United States when they had the similar position and against the United States when the latter’s role was negative. China and the United States were the two most important countries to help the completion of the Paris Climate Change Agreement. The two countries also played key roles in the Iranian nuclear agreement and the joint approaches at the United Nations’ Security Council on North Korean nuclear issue. However, China was firm on its opposing position vis-à-vis the US policy towards the South China Sea issue and the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in South Korea. This dual ways helped consolidate their common standings and avoid hijacking the overall China-US relations by some specific issues, especially in the sensitive election period.

II. Impacts on China-US Relations

During the US presidential campaigning China as a negative reference appeared from time to time. Most of Mr. Trump’s attacks were in the economic and business fields. He accused China of cheating in business, stealing American jobs and manipulating RMB exchange rates. If Mr. Trump goes to translate his campaigning rhetoric into concrete policies, the consequences on China-US relations will be damaging or even devastating. However, Mr. Trump did not pay as much attention to the global geopolitics in general and regional one in particular as President Obama. Indeed, with the change of the president, the United States looks likely that it will decide and define new focuses in China-US relations. Therefore, the Trump administration will present both opportunities and challenges. Now that the election is over, the change of leadership in the United States is historically significant and will definitely impact on China-US relations.

As the biggest developing country and the biggest developed country respectively, as well as the top two economies in the world, China and the United States have to look at and handle their relations through the domestic, bilateral, regional and global perspectives.

Domestically, both China and the United States need the other side for their own country’s agendas. What China seeks are the fulfilment of the two centenary goals  and the realization of the Chinese dream of great national rejuvenation. Now, China is at the critical stage to realize its first centennial goal and prepare for the second goal. It goes without saying that a cooperative and mutually beneficial relationship between China and the United States will certainly be one of the most important external conditions. Likewise, the United States also needs to maintain sustainable relations with China to make itself great again. During the campaign, the Americans had showed their general anxieties over its economy’s downward spiral and the strong eagerness for the revival of its past status. Consequentially, the leaders of the two countries fully understand the importance of mutual interdependence between China and the United States and both look forward to the other side for facilitating their own domestic agendas. Besides, the closely interwoven relations in various fields including political, diplomatic, economic, military, societal and people-to-people ones serve the ever-enhancing foundations for positive and pragmatic relations each other. All these combined, the positive energy of the domestic support will eventually overcome the myopia and narrow-mindedness.

Bilaterally, China and the United States can achieve even greater achievements if they stay on the right track of cooperation. As President Xi Jinping said to Mr. Trump in their telephone conversation on November 14, 2016: “Since the establishment of China-US diplomatic relationship 37 years ago, bilateral relations have been continuously moving forward, which has brought tangible benefits to the two peoples and also promoted world and regional peace, stability and prosperity. Facts have proven that cooperation is the only correct choice for China and the U.S.” In the past eight years when President Obama was in the White House, economic relations have remained as the promoter and ballast for China-U.S. relations while province-to-state, people-to-people and military-to-military exchanges have seen a new round of developments. As Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang said at a luncheon in Washington, DC, on Nov 22, 2016: “Bilateral trade between China and the United States has grown at an average annual rate of over 7 percent over the past eight years amid a slowdown in global trade, bringing huge benefits to the two countries.” He further pointed out: “China has become the largest trade partner of the United States. US exports to China have supported almost one million jobs at home while the rapid increase in Chinese investments in the United States helped create nearly extra 10,000 jobs.” The similar list could be added on and on.

Regionally, China and the United States have their most interactions in the Asia-Pacific region. In recent years, the two countries have gone through many tests such as the South China Sea issue, the North Korea Nuclear issue and China-US-Japan relations. Some issues will come away with the outgoing old administration such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). However, many more issues will stay such as the US-led alliance system and the Taiwan Question. Moreover, even new issues would irrupt under new circumstances. Therefore, the two countries should not be issue-driven but look for top-level planning so as to have a comprehensive and constructive framework to guide their interaction in the region at the new stage of re-matching up each other. In addition to the Asia-Pacific region, China and the United States will also readjust their interaction in or related to other regions. In Latin America and the Caribbean region, China and the United States could work together to help the region for economic restructuring and upgrading. In Africa, China and the United States could create a new model of trilateral or multilateral cooperation for implementing the UN 2030 Agenda. In Europe, China and the United States could find new ways of trilateral cooperation in filling in more momentum to the global economy and the revolution of science and technology.

Globally, China and the United States bear important and special responsibilities in maintaining world peace and stability, and promoting global development and prosperity, as well as share broad common interests. In the past eight years, China and the United States have garnered noticeable achievements in global governance, especially on combating the global financial crisis, climate change and massive epidemics on the one hand and the upgrading the G20 to the summit level, reforming the IMF and the World Bank on the other hand. These achievements, in turn, have not only promoted their bilateral and regional cooperation but also benefited the whole world. Still there is more room for enhancing their cooperation in maintaining and improving the existing international system and order.

III. Multi-faceted Challenges

Desirable as the above-mentioned achievements and prospects, yet the immediate and real changes are serious in essence and immense in magnitude at a time when the United States will soon have a new president with very unconventional ideas and policies.

The first challenge is to prevent the anti-China campaigning rhetoric from becoming real policies. Although this election mainly focused on domestic issues and personal attacks between the two candidates, yet China as a negative reference appeared from time to time. Therefore, the two countries should do their best to consolidate the economic relation as the promoter when it is in the good time and the ballast when it is in difficulties. Besides, both sides need to add more momentums to their bilateral economic relations by more financial cooperation and economic restructuring.

The second challenge is related to the geo-politics and geo-strategies. Since 2010, China and the United States have had increasing difficulties in their opposing senses of geo-politics and geo-strategies. China felt that the United State is tightening its screws on China by encircling military deployments, consolidating its alliance system aiming at China and standing on the opposing side in almost every China’s disputes with its neighbors. The United States feared that China attempted to squeeze it out of the Asia-Pacific region. Besides, there are also the factors of some trilateral relations. China, the United States and Russia will see a new round of readjustments among themselves. Mr. Trump’s standing on  US-Russia relations is unclear, and sometimes even confusing. China, the United States and Japan as well as China, the United States and South Korea present another set of relations for the Northeast Asian geo-strategies and geo-politics. Furthermore, there are also trilateral relations among China, the United States and India as well as China, the United States and ASEAN. Given all these countries’ weight in the world or Asia-Pacific region, these trilateral relations will certainly exert impacts onto the regional developments.

The third challenge is to build up a cooperative working relationship under the new circumstances. In the past four years, the Chinese President Xi Jinping had nine summit meetings with President Obama and the two governments had kept or created 90-plus mechanisms of regular dialogues. But with the Trump administration coming into power, the two governments will enter into a new round of matching-up. Therefore, it is extremely important for the two sides to review the previous policies towards each other and maintain close consultation for the future interaction. Only by so doing, can the two countries reduce uncertainties and increase predictability. During their telephone conversation on November 14, President Xi and President-elect Trump agreed to keep close contact, build a sound working relationship and meet at an early date in order to exchange views on the development of bilateral relations and topics of common concern in time. Through various kinds of contacts and communications in this transitional period, the two sides need to re-confirm the previously existing mechanisms or find new ways of dialogues, define and prioritize the working agendas, and discuss over and find solutions to the major issues of mutual concerns.

The fourth challenge is about proper management of differences and possible crises. Like other bilateral relations, the China-US relations need to have a good new-start. Therefore, the two countries need to handle their differences in a prudent way. Neither side should make provocations or test the limits. Both sides should keep the communication lines operative and effective in case of emergent needs. Furthermore, the actual handling of China-US relations should take into consideration the context of information society. Proper and effective shaping and leading public opinions will also contribute to creating conducive atmosphere, which, in turn, will benefit the management of differences and possible crises.

Last but not least, the challenge also lies in the reduction of trust deficits and enhancement of strategic trust between the two countries. China is a rising power whereas the United States is an established one. As President Xi Jinping pointed out in his speech in Seattle on September 22, 2015: “There is no such thing as the so-called Thucydides trap in the world. But should major countries time and again make the mistakes of strategic miscalculation, they might create such traps for themselves.” There are some basic ways to enhance strategic trust between the two countries. First, China and the United States should adhere to the principles of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation. Second, the two countries should maintain strategic dialogues and show their strategic sincerities by respecting each other’s core and vital national interests. Third, they should also formulate and execute their concrete policies and measures under this strategic framework.

IV. Turning Challenges into Opportunities

China believes in historical materialism and dialectical materialism, thus always holding that challenges could be turned into opportunities under the right conditions. Apart from those factors beyond its control, China is making great efforts to move China-US relations with the Trump administration.

Right after the election China gave out clear signals. According to President Xi Jinping’s congratulatory message on November 8 and the telephone conversation between President Xi and President-elect Trump on November 14, we can summarize China’s policy initiatives as follows: 

China emphasizes the importance of China-US relations and cooperation being the only correct choice. Moreover, President Xi even made his personal commitment. This shows that China will continue to positively and constructively promote this relationship. 

China emphasizes that this relationship brought and should continue to bring tangible benefits to the two peoples and the world at large. While Mr. Trump attacked China on quite a few economic and business issues, he certainly knew that economic cooperation with China will help him yield more economic benefits and that a total confrontation with China will bring catastrophes to the US economy such as highly increasing the living expenses that he promised to bring down during the campaign.

China emphasizes that China is the largest developing country whereas the other is the strongest developed one. Furthermore, they are the top two world’s economies. Therefore, both share the special responsibilities for the world. This is to tell the Trump administration that the two countries should work together for better global governance and improving the international system and order.

There are also some signs that it is possible to turn some of the challenges into opportunities. Mr. Trump pays less attention to ideologies and geo-strategic factors, thus making it possible for the two countries to have a fresh look on the so-called U.S. Rebalancing Strategy in the Asian Pacific Region. At this stage of waiting for the readjustments of the U.S. strategies and policies, one can say three things at least. First, the Trump administration will rebalance the geographic extents among Europe-Russia, the Middle East and Asian Pacific. Second, the Trump administration will rebalance its relations with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Vietnam on the one hand and China on the other. Third, the Trump administration will also need to rebalance the contents between security/military and politics/economics. 

Mr. Trump values more on concrete and tangible benefits. His advisors already started to talk about the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Belt & Road Initiative (B&RI) advocated by China but denied by the Obama administration. Trump’s national security adviser James Woolsey said in an opinion piece that the Obama administration’s opposition to the formation of the AIIB was “a strategic mistake” and hoped the next administration’s response to China’s Belt and Road initiative would be “much warmer”. The Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said on November 15, 2016 that it would “not be a bad thing if the United States, as the world’s largest economy, would join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB)”. 

IV. Conclusion

To sum up, the election of Mr. Trump as the new U.S. president certainly presents many new challenges, some of which are even unprecedented ones. We should never underestimate the width and depth of these challenges and take all the necessary measures to prepare for the worst. However, it does not mean the end-day of the world. On the contrary, this out-of-expectation result should enable the world to re-ponder the new situation and strive for the new solutions. Taking into consideration their weight and influence, China and the United States should shoulder special responsibilities for maintaining peace and stability of the world. Therefore, they have only one correct choice, i.e. cooperation. They cannot afford the devastative results of confrontation and conflicts, which leaves no winners but only losers. It should be pointed out that the atmospheres and essences of the Xi-Trump initial contacts are both positive and substantive. After all, China-US relations have gone through eight American Republican or Democrat presidents since President Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 and made great achievements in the past 35 years. So long as the two sides stay on the right track with the right leadership and institutions, one can have good reasons to believe that the China-U.S. relations would move ahead through post-election stabilities and enter into a new stage of cooperation. 
(As of November 27, 2016)

* Yang Jiemian is Former President of Shanghai Institutes for International Studies.