WASHINGTON — President Trump’s “extremely cordial” call Thursday night with Chinese President Xi Jinping creates an opportunity for the two world powers to work together, but doesn’t erase major conflicts that will get in the way.
In a significant overture, Trump pledged to honor the “one China” policy — recognition of the communist leadership in Beijing as the sole legitimate government — that has guided U.S.-China relations for 40 years. In doing so, he backed away from a comment before taking office that China’s position “on other things, including trade” could influence his attitude toward “one China,” which accepts China’s view of Taiwan as a breakaway province.
Trump’s pullback from his provocative words and softer tone after accusations against China of unfair trade and militarism in the South China Sea could be a negotiating tactic, said Michael Auslin, a China analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C.
The goal is to “throw the other party off balance and come back and say there’s a lot of work we can do,” Auslin said. The call, the first time the two leaders have spoken, buys time for Trump “to come up with a more comprehensive China policy,” Auslin added.
Until this week, Trump seemed to go out of his way to antagonize Xi. After his election, he took a congratulatory call from Taiwan’s president, which is a break in protocol under “one China.” He then used Twitter and interviews with Fox News to assail China’s military installations in disputed waters in the South China Sea, its failure to control North Korea’s nuclear weapons development and China’s unbalanced trade policies toward the United States.
Trump politely repeated the “one China” mantra of previous U.S. administrations “to make Xi Jinping happy,” said Richard Fisher of the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Arlington, Va. “What America has to do in order to deter China from here on out is not going to make (Xi) happy at all.”
At stake is whether Trump will acquiesce to China’s long-term goal of pushing the U.S. out of Asia and become the world’s sole and dominant superpower, Fisher said. If that “underlying tension” is not dealt with now, the U.S. will “face the prospect of real disaster in the not-to-distant future.”
Preventing that outcome means finding an accommodation on three contentious issues:
South China Sea
The U.S. seeks to halt or reverse China’s military expansion on artificial islands in disputed waters that are home to petroleum deposits, fisheries and 25% of world trade. China has claimed sovereignty, citing centuries-old evidence, ignoring an international tribunal’s ruling to the contrary.
President Obama had ordered U.S. Navy vessels and aircraft to patrol the waters, and Trump could double down on that approach, but close encounters can raise the level of risk. The Defense Department reported Friday that a U.S. patrol plane and Chinese jets flew within 1,000 feet of each other near Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, in an “unsafe” encounter, according to Spokesman Robert Shuford of the U.S. Pacific Command.
Other U.S. options are limited, said Evan Medeiros of the Eurasia Group, a New York-based political risk consulting organization. “If you want to stop China and roll back their claims, you risk military action, which risks war,” Medeiros said.
The risk is that China “begins to control those waters and the U.S. Navy, and potentially U.S. shipping, could become vulnerable to China,” Medeiros said.
The U.S. should make clear to the world when it discusses North Korea’s illegal nuclear weapons program that it exists because of China’s vital support for the North Korea’s rogue regime, Fisher said. China, which has transferred missile transport trucks to the North, should be told: “Take back what you’ve given them and don’t give them anymore,” he said.
To help China make that decision, the U.S. should redeploy tactical nuclear weapons to U.S. forces in South Korea and Japan to level the balance of power, Fisher said.
Matthew Goodman, a China analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said China perceives stability on the Korean peninsula a core national interest. It has refrained from applying absolute pressure on the government in Pyongyang out of fear it would collapse and cause a flood of refugees across the border the two countries share, disrupting China’s economic and social fabric, Goodman said.
“At some point if the nuclear issue or the (North Korean) regime went out of control, they might decide it’s more of a priority,” he said.
Trump accuses China of keeping its currency artificially weak against the dollar to make its exports to the U.S. less expensive and of blocking U.S. investment in China.
But anything Trump might do to retaliate likely will provoke a series of “tit for tat economic attacks” that could result in a trade crisis between the world’s two largest economies, Goodman said. That could cause global financial markets to sink.
Auslin believes the trade and other disputes can be settled quietly through diplomacy now that Trump has made clear that a change in U.S. thinking is coming.
“That’s probably the right way to do it,” he said. “Tell China policy’s changing and we’re changing. Now’s the time.”
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