Trump’s Mixed Signals on China

From the outset of his presidency, concrete indications of Donald Trump’s plans for China-related policy have been elusive. On the campaign trail, Trump frequently cast China as an exploitative threat to U.S. prosperity, amplifying a sense of economic vulnerability shared by many of his core supporters. After his election victory, Trump’s short, precedent-shattering conversation with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen was celebrated by many in Taiwan, maligned by some in the U.S. foreign-policy establishment, and roundly criticized by the Chinese government. The combative gestures continued in a January 13th interview with The Wall Street Journal, in which Trump asserted that “Everything is under negotiation, including one-China,” referring to the U.S. government’s longstanding one-China policy. Following a series of relatively diplomatic reactions to Trump’s posturing, Beijing adopted a more aggressive stance in a January 15th China Daily editorial piece: “If Trump is determined to use this gambit, Beijing will have no choice but to take off the gloves.”

Now, weeks into his new administration, President Trump appears to be quietly hedging some of his earlier bets. On February 9th, the much-anticipated and reportedly ˜extremely cordial’ phone call between Trump and China’s President Xi Jinping resulted in an abrupt reversal of Trump’s earlier skepticism towards the one-China Policy, a significant win for Beijing. The concession certainly placed U.S.-China relations on firmer footing, but the flip-flopping may also be signaling to Beijing that Trump is nothing more than a paper tiger. On a broader scale, the public about-face on the issue has fueled growing concerns that the Trump Administration’s foreign policy is consistently inconsistent, with senior officials and Trump himself often contradicting previous statements. Given his record of bellicose rhetoric and the overall climate of uncertainty, many in China remain skeptical of Trump’s overture.

Even if President Trump’s change of heart regarding one-China is sincere, he still seems intent on charting a collision course with Beijing on a host of other issues, including trade, South China Sea territorial disputes, and climate change policy. While speaking with Reuters, Trump described China as the “grand champions” of currency manipulation, doubling down on a popular but tired talking point from the campaign trail. Much remains to be seen with regard to these bilateral sticking points, and with the administration still in its early days, the coming months will undoubtedly reveal the extent to which Trump is willing to back up his bluster. In the meantime, we decided to follow up on the China Daily article mentioned above and ask: In the event of a serious bilateral dispute between the U.S. and China, what would China ‘taking off the gloves’ actually entail? Three of UC San Diego’s resident China experts respond below.


Susan Shirk (Chair, 21st Century China Center):

“It’s a dangerous mistake to underestimate China’s ability to punish Taiwan and the US if we take provocative actions like a renunciation of our long-held “One China Policy” that is part of the “constitution” of US-China relations. Taiwan would be hardest hit by economic penalties against trade and/or investment. After all, Mainland tourism to Taiwan has already been reduced by Beijing regulations in an effort to pressure Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen. But Beijing would also use China’s market power to penalize our companies and sectors. Beijing could also ratchet up the pressure on Washington by actions in the South and East China Seas as well as by military exercises, missile tests, or even grabbing a small island in the Taiwan Strait.”


Victor Shih (Associate Professor of Political Economy):

“There is a high degree of interdependence between the two countries, so ‘taking the gloves off’ or a naval blockade on the United States’ part would cause grave harm to the interests of both countries. Of course, it’s in the interest of both countries to signal credible commitments, so we can expect some tough language on both sides!”


Tai Ming Cheung (Director, UC Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation):

“It would very much depend on what specific acts the U.S. did, but Beijing would be careful in taking cautious steps first rather than act forcefully. Initial steps could see Beijing being far less cooperative, and even oppose, U.S. actions in international institutions, of which its role on the UN Security Council would be a prominent mechanism. Beijing might also signal its displeasure by taking selective steps that could hamper trade relations. One favorite traditional move has been to stop purchases of high value items such Boeing aircraft. More seriously, Beijing could step up its opposition towards U.S. surveillance activities near China’s boundaries. I don’t think that Beijing would do anything too provocative that might trigger potential conflict though.”

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Alex Webb

is a graduate student at GPS studying international politics with a focus on China and Southeast Asia. His research interests include regional inequality in China, Chinese investment in Southeast Asia, and cross-strait relations.

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