BY JESSE JOHNSON, STAFF WRITER
Four more years of Donald Trump would give the mercurial U.S. president a freer hand to achieve foreign policy goals in Asia, especially dealings with China, that have so far eluded him. But exactly what this would look like remains unclear — and potentially dangerous — absent a coherent strategy for the East Asian superpower.
Trump on Monday vowed victory in the Nov. 3 presidential election after being formally nominated by the Republican Party on the opening day of its national convention.
There’s just one major hitch: With his plans to focus on a roaring economy to secure re-election in tatters as the coronavirus pandemic roils the United States, Trump needs another rallying point. Enter Beijing.
“We’re fighting off this horrible thing that was delivered by China, and it was by China. … I’ll let them know we’re never going to forget what they did,” Trump said of the coronavirus, during a surprise visit to the Republican National Convention opening-day venue in North Carolina.
While the U.S. leader spent much of the initial years of his presidency speaking fondly of Chinese President Xi Jinping as he pursued a bilateral trade deal, the pair’s relationship has deteriorated to fresh lows in recent months.
Trump said on Aug. 11 that he hasn’t spoken to Xi in “a long time,” saying in an interview that the two leaders’ relationship has frayed due to the coronavirus.
“I had a great relationship with President Xi,” Trump said. “I like him. But I don’t feel the same way now.”
Perhaps more indicative of the shift on China were a coordinated series of speeches by the administration last month that saw national security adviser Robert O’Brien, FBI Director Christopher Wray, Attorney General William Barr and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lambaste Beijing in a manner not seen since ties were normalized.
Fully empowering the China hawks in his administration, fights now rage between the two powers over COVID-19 — what Trump derisively refers to as the “China virus” or “Wuhan virus” — and trade, technology, supply chains and maritime assertiveness.
And while the White House in May released a policy paper that attempted to lay out the administration’s goals with its strategic rival, the current onslaught against China lacks direction, experts say.
“The dirty little secret is that the administration has no strategy,” Andrew Nathan, a political science professor and China expert at Columbia University, wrote earlier this month in an analysis. “It is a snake pit of competing policy entrepreneurs, most of whom understand little about China or world affairs. For many, domestic politics is the key consideration.”
Daniel Russel, a former assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific who’s now vice president at the Asia Society Policy Institute, said the “series of very aggressive, very confrontational actions and … hostile rhetoric” on China may be aimed at the November election, “but it’s going to have an effect that lasts long beyond that.”
“The Trump administration has perhaps unintentionally set itself on an irrevocable collision course with China,” he added.
According to Russel, the moves have stripped away the relationship’s protective insulation, as well as the mechanisms for defusing tensions — with the sole exception of the trade channel.
The United States signed a partial trade deal with China in January, which Trump had hoped to tout as part of the planned economic focus of his campaign. Those talks continue, but the focus on the fruits of that agreement has largely disappeared from the campaign.
Even before the latest ramped-up moves, observers such as former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said the U.S. and China were in the “foothills of a Cold War,” with the ex-diplomat who helped lay the foundations for the two countries’ current relationship warning that such a conflict could be worse than World War I if left unconstrained.
But, even with China-bashing being well-received among some U.S. voters as views of the world’s No. 2 economy sour, some analysts say that many of Trump’s moves allow for a quick shift if he secures a second term.
“President Trump is more a showman and negotiator than a genuine China hawk, and he is allowing a slew of firm yet reversible actions and bombastic rhetoric to burnish his credentials as a hardliner,” Scott Kennedy, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, wrote in a commentary earlier this month. “But once election season passes and he has amassed more leverage on China, he will sue for peace.”
Kennedy said that hawks in the administration would also likely go along with this as they seek a “re-setting” of the relationship to “a more advantageous position.”
“And Xi Jinping appears to be fine playing this game,” he wrote, noting that China has been restrained in a bilateral context, “hitting back with proportionate responses, not escalation” since stable ties with the West are critical given his country’s economic weaknesses.
Still, regardless of such intentions, concerns have been growing that, amid the heated rhetoric and lack of communication under the Trump administration, something could be lost in translation — with devastating consequences.
One area where this would be most likely is the disputed South China Sea.
Washington has targeted Beijing over its assertiveness in the waterway, including the construction of man-made islands, some of which are home to military-grade airfields and advanced weaponry. The U.S. fears the outposts could be used to restrict free movement in the area, which includes vital sea lanes through which about $3 trillion in global trade passes each year.
The U.S. military has angered Beijing by regularly holding drills and conducting “freedom of navigation operations” close to and over some of the islands China occupies there, including its man-made islets.
“China could see military action as its only recourse if it loses the diplomatic option to assert its sovereignty claims,” a May report by the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations noted. “The continued downward spiral in U.S.-China relations could also encourage Xi to adopt a now-or-never approach to the South China Sea.”
Such a scenario would make the possibility of an even more significant conflagration far more likely, according to Russel.
“There is a great risk that an unintended incident involving the U.S. and China could prove to be the spark that lights a very great fire,” he said. “An incident could easily escalate into a crisis and could precipitate some form of conflict, and there’s no basis for being confident that Washington and Beijing would be able to contain that.”