November 22, 2016

Hugh White

It is a date we will long remember.  The 8th of November 2016 quite plainly marks a big shift in the way we see America, and about its place in the world – including of course, its relationship with China.  Now everyone interested in that relationship has to ask afresh: where do we go from here?

Much of course depends on the kind of President Mr. Trump turns out to be and the kind of policies he will adopt.  Both these issues remain profoundly unclear.  Faced with such uncertainties the best path is often to go back to basics. Hence it seems sensible at this time to re-examine the fundamentals of US-China relations – the things that haven’t changed with Donald Trump’s election.  That helps us think about how, in these new circumstances, a foundation can be built for a stable and mutually-beneficial US-China relationship.

The election does not, in itself, change everything.  Whoever became President this year would have confronted the same reality: that for all the immense interests and objectives that the two countries share, America and China today have divergent and mutually incompatible intentions and expectations about one fundamental question. They have quite different ideas about their respective roles in Asia and the essential nature of the relations with one another.

The gulf between the two country’s aims is simple and stark.  On the one hand, America seeks to remain the primary power in Asia, as it has been for so long. On the other, China seeks to change that, to create a ‘new model of great power relations’ in which America no longer exercises the leadership of past decades, and in which China perhaps takes its place.

Moreover, both sides appear to believe that they can achieve their aims without seriously disrupting the many areas of cooperation between them, and especially without risking a military conflict – because each seems to assume that the other will concede the contested ground between them.

American policymakers on both sides of the aisle most believe that, faced with a clear demonstration of US resolve, China’s leaders can easily be persuaded to abandon their vision of a new regional order, and go back to accepting US leadership into the future, as they did for so long in the past.  This belief was the key foundation of President Obama’s Pivot, and it explains why Washington thought that the Pivot’s very modest practical initiatives would suffice to achieve its ambitious goals.

Chinese policymakers seem to believe the converse: that America can be quite easily persuaded to step back from its leadership role in Asia, and even accept that China will step up to take its place.  They believe that the regional order in Asia matters much more the China than to America, and that America will thus be more willing than China to step back to avoid a confrontation. This explains why Beijing has been so boldly testing US resolve over intrinsically quite insignificant issues in the East and South China Seas: they have been confident that America would rather see its regional leadership erode rather than risk a rupture with China.

Herein lies the danger, of course. Each side believes that it can impose its view of the future relationship on the other without seriously endangering the many areas of cooperation which are so vital to both.  They cannot both be right. The future of the US-China relationship, and of so much else besides, depends on which one of them is wrong, or if both are.

So, the key question facing the Trump Administration as it takes office is the same one that would have faced a Clinton Administration had the vote gone the other way.  Should America strive to preserve the US-led order in Asia which has served the region so well for so long in the face of China’s ambition to change that order?

Many Washington insiders are now trying to convince the President-Elect that he can and should commit to perpetuating US regional leadership.  They argue that he can make Beijing back off and abandon its challenge to US primacy in Asia at low cost and with little risk.  They talk of revitalizing the Pivot, expanding the navy, asserting freedom of navigation and re-energizing key Asian alliances.

That means doubling down on the President Obama’s – and Secretary Clinton’s – policy, in the hope that more of the same kind of pressure will make the Chinese back off.  If they are right, US leadership in Asia will be reconfirmed, and the old status quo in US-China relations re-established.

If they are wrong, Beijing will respond to more pressure from Mr. Trump just as they have from President Obama – by becoming even more assertive, upping the counter-pressure and hoping it will be America that backs off.  Mr. Trump would then face a much tougher choice – whether to counter-escalate in turn, risking an ascending cycle of confrontation with a real and growing risk of war.

But the voices urging a tougher line on China may not be the only voices in his ear.  He campaigned on an ‘America First’ platform that prioritized America’s immediate interests over broader visions of global leadership, minimized the importance of America’s role in distant regions, and disparaged key US alliances in these regions.  It is quite possible that, confronted with the reality of China’s power and resolve, Mr. Trump as President does indeed decide that putting America’s own interests first means stepping back from Asia rather than risking a confrontation that could cost America dear, or even a war that America could not win.

Alas, there are big risks either way for those – including Australians like me – living on the Western side of the Pacific.  Few in Asia believe that China will back down as Washington hawks expect, so there is real fear that a tough line on China from the new administration would intensify rivalry and carry a real danger of war.  That would be a disaster for us.

But few if any outside China want to see America simply step back from Asia, because we fear that we would then simply fall under China’s shadow.  The only good outcome for us in one in which America stays engaged as a key strategic player in Asia, but avoids escalating rivalry with China by acknowledging China’s increased power and according it a greater share of regional leadership.

Negotiating that kind of new order in Asia would take very deft diplomacy indeed, combining flexibility and tact on the one hand, and icy resolve on the other.  Alas Mr. Trump does not seem likely to command those virtues.


Hugh White is a Professor of Strategic Studies at Australia National University.