Attached is a draft summary of my working paper on A Roadmap For US-China Relations.
Matters On Hold
At the moment, given the instability in US domestic politics, I believe that China is unlikely to rush into any major initiative with the new American administration. It will spend some time observing. There will be contacts and some discussions, but mostly to test the water in a business-as-usual fashion. There will likely be skirmishes on trade and financial matters, and military posturings and maneuvers. Until the dust settles, time is on China’s side, although China is not wasting any of it.
White Paper To Start The Dialogue
Last week, China’s State Council issued an important White Paper on China’s Policies On Asia-Pacific Security Cooperation. Trump’s team should study this carefully. It spells out the principles and core interests that China believes should be observed and respected. It is a positive gesture to start a dialogue.
The first thing to watch is Trump’s response to the contents of the White Paper. The Chinese style in negotiation and state conduct is to address matter of general principles first. They want to arrive at a sufficient mutual understanding on principles, before discussing any specifics. Such mutual understanding on principles may even be an agreement to disagree, so long as the disagreement can be spelt out to mutual satisfaction and there is genuine sincerity to engage in a meaningful dialogue. On the contrary, if that cannot be achieved, all serious talks would come to a halt. Trump’s team will have to get used to that, just as his preceding administrations did. The Chinese are very patient, often frustratingly so for their American counterparts, who are generally interested only in specifics and not braod principles, and dangerously ignore history.
The second thing to watch is what Trump decides to do with the existing formal semi-annual US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue between the key ministers of the two countries, and the large number of ongoing working groups and task forces related to that. These have been working well, but the turnover of people and the thinking and style of the new administration may affect the effectiveness of this mechanism. In any case, one of the recommendations in my Roadmap is to go deeper, more frankly and methodically, into the sensitive issues. This is necessary in order to break the ice, and help chart both sides’ courses of action to minimize serious miscalculations that could lead to disastrous and spiralling consequences. At the moment, there are many existing misunderstandings between the two sides that will have to be ameliorated, and candid dialogue is the best way to do that.
No “Deal” Under Current Circumstances
Things are not going well at the moment given Trump’s raving to want “deals” on matters of fundamental principles that had already been “dealt with” historically, such as the One China principle. Trump is acting like a rambunctious toddler wanting an icecream before doing his homework. It is like China wanting America to relinquish sovereignty over Texas and Arizona and all the territories belonging to Native Americans before 1900, in return for China buying US Treasuries! Trump has to cut out the nonsense and tantrums, and learn to behave like a man!
Until Trump exhausts his hope on Putin (which he will because of structural contradictions in the two sides’ national interests) and his protectionist policies begins to backfire, China will wait. It will concentrate on further developing its military strengths and consolidate its numerous and growing bilateral/multilateral partnerships everywhere in the world. When and if Trump lasts long enough to seek re-election, he will find the approach of this Roadmap his best option, if not the last straw.
If all goes well, the two sides will try to spell out their respective interpretations of a New Form Of Big Nations Relations, and seek common ground to develop meaningful cooperation on multiple fronts. The current slogan of “No clashes, avoid confrontation, manage differences through dialogue” would be a good working foundation. All must be based on realism, not fantasy.
It would be fair to say that the world is feeling a bit queasy at the moment. The following Feng Zikai comic strip from another era seems apt for the situation today.
Hmm … not so good.