With much fanfare President Trump welcomed Chinese President Xi Jinping to his Florida retreat for face-to-face meetings weeks ago. According to press accounts, Trump was eager to press Beijing to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and martial spirit.
But there was more there than meets the eye. For one thing, the Trump delegation arrived later than Xi, a breach of diplomatic protocol. Was the occupant of the White House sending a message? And second, sometime between salad and entrée, Trump let on that he is attacking Syria with 59 Tomahawks, the same Assad government China supports. It has not been reported whether Xi had indigestion.
The Trump team seemingly ushered in a new stance towards China. For decades, policy analysts in both parties contended that integrating China into the global economic, diplomatic and securities architecture would ultimately serve the interests of the West and yield stability across the globe. But this hypothesis has not been borne out by the evidence.
Since 2008 China has embraced protectionism in defiance of trade agreements. It has boosted state owned enterprises to the detriment of foreign owned firms. And it has extorted intellectual property for Chinese entities as the price for participation in Chinese markets.
On the foreign policy front, China has asserted its territorial and maritime claims with a unilaterally generated air perimeter zone, one that was drawn in a coercive and hostile manner. It has increased its support for North Korea and rejected United Nations actions against its dubious ally. Yet despite, these actions and many others, there persists the belief U.S. and China can establish a modus vivendi. Based on recent assertions and a Chinese willingness to assist in restraining the North Korean nuclear program, a new level of understanding may be emerging. Washington does have its skeptics.
First among them are those who maintain that the initial overtures to China during the Nixon years no longer apply. China’s role as a counter weight to Soviet ambitions in the Cold War is an anachronistic judgment. Second, ambitious Chinese plan for its international Silk Road have created a rivalry that is not likely to evanesce.
A fundamental Chinese belief in its extended geographic periphery runs headlong into U.S. hegemony in the Pacific. For China to prevail, it seems likely it will have to delegitimize U.S. alliances in Asia.
If one accepts this proposition, a reorientation of U.S. policy towards China is warranted. That, of course, is the Trump challenge. Will China continue to be welcome in the community of nations or will her raw ambition militate against cooperation? Will Trump be capable of balancing ties to China with U.S. interests in Asia?
President Trump warned that the Mar-a-Lago summit would be difficult. Yet it has also awakened a new level of understanding. Where this will lead is anyone’s guess. Will China raise the ante in its long march to world trade domination? Will the Trump administration develop a strategy for Chinese containment without the risk of war? The questions are cascading out of the White House and into Foggy Bottom. America’s, keen analysts realize the role that China plays – conciliatory or hostile – will ultimately determine the fate of mankind.