The Trump Effect: U.S.-China Relations in the Years to Come

The Trump Effect: U.S.-China Relations in the Years to Come

Jacques deLisle at the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies. (Photo: Kevin Sprague/UCLA.)

Jacques deLisle highlighted the potential ramifications of Trump's presidency for U.S.-China relations at a recent Center for Chinese Studies event.

by Kevin Sprague (UCLA 2018)

UCLA International Institute, January 18, 2017 — Donald Trump’s road to the White House has raised eyebrows worldwide. Abrasive and unpredictable, his troubling tweets have thrown world leaders for a loop. This is especially true for China’s leaders, of whom he was an outspoken critic throughout his campaign. As the world awaits Trump’s inauguration, the consequences of his election for the relationship between China and the U.S. is unclear.

On January 13, Jacques deLisle of the University of Pennsylvania presented a talk at the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies focusing on the ramifications of Trump’s presidency for U.S.-China relations, particularly regarding the South China Sea, international economic institutions and Taiwan’s sovereignty.

Controversy in the South China Sea

The speaker predicted that Trump’s presidency would cause China to escalate its claims in the South China Sea. To the Chinese, he explained, past loss of control over territory in the Sea is a sore subject. Loss of the islands is understood as a loss to the people, a national humiliation.

DeLisle explained that in a move to “re-assert its place in the region,” China has been “implicitly and sometimes explicitly claiming land formations” in order to gain the exclusive economic zone rights tied to the land, with hopes of claiming sovereignty over perhaps as much as to 90 percent of the South China Sea. The Chinese government has gone so far as to build artificial islands in hopes of expanding its territorial claims.

This practice has not been popular with its neighbors. Conflicting land claims and reports of illegal island building to gain Chinese territory led to the Philippines v. China ruling of 2016 by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which denounced Chinese claims of “historical rights” to land in the South China Sea. China challenged the ruling, declaring it illegitimate. Because the ruling is unenforceable under the international law of the sea, said deLisle, it is unlikely that any one nation would try to enforce it alone.

“What is the Trump effect on this issue?” asked deLisle. His answer was an expansion of China's ability to challenge the status quo. Trump has previously expressed a desire to reduce security commitments in East Asia, warning Japan and South Korea that they may soon have to fend for themselves — a move that would greatly increase opportunity for Chinese assertion and expansion. Still, said the speaker, China is unsure where to draw the line.

The “Trump effect” will not pave the way for China to totally redefine the South China Sea, argued deLisile, pointing to Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. In his recent confirmation hearing before Congress, Tillerson derided Obama as “too soft” on China and denounced their island building in the South China Sea as illegal, declaring, “We’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.” The Chinese state-run Global Times was quick to report Tillerson’s statements as “leading to a path of war.”

Trade in Asia

DeLisle then shifted his focus to trade, reminding the audience that “China is deeply integrated into the global supply chain,” especially in U.S. dealings with the Asia-Pacific region. While in the past, China has been subject to criticism for not following standard liberal trade obligations and social norms, it has dominated international trade and directly competed with the U.S. for a power position in Asian trade. This was clear in the build-up to the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, argued deLisle, saying, “TPP was presented as who would control the 21st century economy: America or China?”

The question, he said, was likely answered when Trump’s election all but guaranteed the end of the TPP. With Trump "declaring war on already existing free trade agreements, let alone ones yet in place,” said deLisle, the only trade agreement in Asia that remains on the table is China’s RCEP deal, which would see China take the place of the USA in international trade policy.

Still, Trump has sowed seeds of doubt. “Chinese commentators and analysts worry that Trump and the people around him have a misguided and inaccurate image of China,” said deLisle, “and will operate on misinformation.” He explained that "despite salivating at the idea of being the only game in town with the RCEP," China is very unsure of the future of trade in Asia.

The Taiwan question

Speaking of Trump’s tweets following his now infamous phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, deLisle said the call was perceived as a show of support for Taiwan’s sovereignty and diverged from decades of established U.S. foreign policy on the issue.

Described by deLisle as the cause of “hearty perennial of friction between the U.S. and China,” the Taiwan question has roots that stretch back to 1949, when the government of the Republic of China fled to Taiwan after the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was declared. The mainland PRC asserted that Taiwan was an extension of China, and in 1979 the United States officially adopted a “One China Policy,” ending formal relations with Taiwan.

In the past, the U.S. has aimed to deter a crisis on both sides, maintaining friendly relations with Taiwan in a manner that would not provoke China. Trump’s acceptance of President Tsai’s call raised flags for the Chinese, who issued a vague statement afterwards reminding the U.S. that "the 'one China' principle is the political foundation of China-U.S. relations."

DeLisle hypothesized that the Chinese believe that Trump will operate as a “dealmaker” when it comes to Taiwan and try to use the island’s status as a bargaining chip for an unrelated deal. However, the President-elect’s Twitter feed has been the cause of great stress for the Chinese government. Despite his “dealmaker” reputation and perceived business savvy, Trump’s outspokenness and unpredictability has inspired wariness among the Chinese. This, said deLisle, has led to a "reading of the tea leaves effort" to decipher just how seriously and literally they should take Trump’s shocking statements, both online and to the press.

DeLisle concluded by stressing his belief that declarations of a “modern cold war” or “hot war” between the U.S. and China are overblown. Yet he made clear that without a U.S. presence in Asia, to which Trump has alluded, China would have a much freer hand to execute its goals of expansion and trade. Perhaps the biggest challenge is lack of communication from the Trump team. With a President as “all over the map” as Trump, he remarked, “we’ll need far more than 140 characters from the Commander-in-Chief to maintain the status quo with China.”

Published: Wednesday, January 18, 2017