by Garrett Dee

Photo Credit: People’s Daily

Congeniality on Display in Xi’s Visit to Mar-A-Lago Indicative of Warmer Relations

THOUGH THE world may have awaited with baited breath the first meeting between recently-inaugurated US president Donald Trump and Chinese president Xi Jinping at Trump’s Florida club Mar-a-Lago which occurred last week, reports coming out of the two-day event indicate an almost entirely conventional summit with no major surprises. The entire meeting, right down to the food that was served at the banquet, seemed noticeably bland and without any apparent controversy directly regarding the bilateral relationship. This may seem like an about face for many who have been observing burgeoning US-China policy under the Trump administration, which had previously threatened to take a more aggressive stance against Beijing upon Trump’s ascent to office, but this outcome may in fact hint at a new era of cooperation between the two large nations. Though this may seem a boon to someand indeed in regards to many critical global challenges it very well may bea warming of relations between the US and China could pose serious risks to Taiwan going forward.

So far, Trump has shown a reluctance to follow the conventional path of US foreign policy towards China that has been trod by every president since Nixon’s initial establishment of relationships with the PRC; that is, an acknowledgement of the indispensability of the crucial bilateral relationship tempered with a closely guarded skepticism of the Chinese government. Indeed, Trump dances to a different tune when it comes to his viewpoint towards China. Whereas past US presidents of both parties were quick to bring China’s human rights record to the table in almost every dealing, a point of particular contention in the relationship between the two nations, Trump seems to overlook this issue entirely in favor of trade and economic relations. His remarks in the lead-up to the meeting seemed to indicate that he would place particular emphasis on trade issues during this summit, going as far as to announce on Twitter his expectation that the meeting would be a difficult one given what he viewed as fundamentally unfair Chinese trade policies with the United States.

For its part, Beijing seems intent upon growing its influence within Washington and limiting the anti-China sentiment that seemed to hit a high point in fervor during the Trump presidential campaign. Though initially surrounding himself with prominent anti-China advisors such as Peter Navarro or Steve Bannon, it seems that Trump has lately been relying more heavily on his son-in-law Jared Kushner, who occupies an increasingly prominent role in the White House’s foreign policy operations. Kushner himself, who some pundits have gone as far as to label the United States’ true Secretary of State in all but name, has had notable dealings with Chinese businesspeople since the Trump inauguration and is even rumored to have persuaded Trump to concede to Beijing’s “One China Principle” during the US president’s initial phone call with his Chinese counterpart, signaling to the Chinese government that it would be willing to back down from its previous perceived support of Taiwan. To this end, the Chinese government has been working backchannels through its ambassador to Washington Cui Tiankai to actively court both Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, treating them in a similar fashion to China’s so called “princelings”—children of prominent Chinese officials—in an effort to gain Trumps’ ear. In this regard, their charm offensive appears to have at least initially met with success, as reports have it that Kushner was crucial in arranging initial contact between the two leaders.

Indeed, Trump has seemingly almost completely backed down from several of his previous accusations against China, and in many cases has rather strikingly reversed course, signaling that his administration will not being pursuing the path of the strongly anti-China rhetoric it had touted during his campaign. Though he made strong assertions about the trade imbalance between the  United States and China, going as far as to claim that the Chinese were “raping” the United States in terms of trade and finance, he has yet to label China a currency manipulator, as he promised that he would on his very first day in office. His aforementioned initial phone call with Xi saw Trump backing down even further from his initial position, claiming that the United States would honor “our One China Policy” in regards to Taiwan, wording that was explicitly stated to have been reached after deliberation between the two leaders, seemingly indicating that Xi successfully persuaded Trump to concede this point.

Additionally, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appears to be conveying a similar message of reconciliation towards the PRC. His first visit to Beijing in his capacity as US Secretary of State produced a statement that mirrored the foreign policy language of the Chinese government over the last few decades almost verbatim. The wording of the statement was heavily criticized by China experts for having been excessively conciliatory to the Chinese point of view, and was viewed largely as a diplomatic victory for the Chinese. This unexpected concession is all the more compounded by Tillerson’s previous statements regarding China, in which he made bold assertions that the United States challenged the Chinese government’s claims to the territories of the South China Sea and should be barred access to the artificial islands they have constructed and militarized over the last several years. However, as it is now widely believed that Tillerson and the State Department as a whole have been marginalized by the White House, which has gone as far as to even leave many key positions regarding the Asia Pacific unfilled, this may even further reflect a shifting attitude towards foreign policy towards China within the Trump administration.

The Syria Strike and the Threat of Military Action in Asia

THIS IS NOT to say that the US-China relationship is no longer fraught with potential conflict, however. Many are questioning the timeliness of the US assault on a Syrian airbase, following a devastating chemical weapons attack the US government claims was perpetrated by the Syrian regime, just hours into Trump’s meeting with Xi. Though the Trump administration announced it had decided upon the strike before the meeting with the Chinese delegation, it does complicate the relationship between the two nations, as China had previously denounced use of force in dealing with the ongoing Syrian conflict, stating that it believes that a political solution can be found to the devastating civil war that has claimed thousands of lives and displaced many more. Indeed, though China has certainly not been seen as a major player in the international crisis surrounding the Syrian conflict, it has consistently sided with the Russian government in opposing attempts by the international community to intervene in the crisis.

Missile strike fired from the USS Porter on Syrian government targets. Photo credit: Seaman Ford Williams/US Navy/PA Wire

The most immediately applicable lesson that China may be able to take away from the Trump administration’s decision to strike the Syrian government’s air bases is Trump’s willingness to take unilateral military action against certain countries it deems a threat, a category that certainly also includes North Korea, for whom China is the major diplomatic ally. Certainly, the situation on the Korean peninsula and the increasing boldness with which Pyongyang has touted its expanding military capabilities has been repeatedly brought up by the Trump administration over the past month. In his trip to Beijing, Tillerson was said to have stressed the importance of the issue on the US-China relationship, and Trump himself has made bold assertions about the current state of affairs, claiming that the United States hoped that China would be able to cooperate diplomatically to resolve the North Korean issue, but that he was prepared to take action against North Korea with or without the cooperation of Beijing. Trump declined to specify whether or not this action would be military in nature; however, the launch of the attack against Assad lends enough credibility to the threat to put Beijing on alert.

A Victory for Xi Domestically and Abroad

COMPARISONS HAVE been made between both leaders and their seeming “strongman” style of leadership, showing a preference for consolidating decision-making authority around themselves rather than in the party establishment. Walking out of this summit, Xi himself is headed into a major political transition in the fall. He will most likely be looking to solidify his own influence within the party by proving that he is able to deal successfully with such erratic leaders as Donald Trump, securing concessions from him in areas in which the United States government has previously been reticent to compromise on. Indeed, the initial phone call between Trump and Xi was widely viewed as a win for the Chinese in the area of its Taiwan policy, and given the fact that Trump has been so vocal about the imbalance of trade between the two nations, the fact that the two leaders left the meeting having agreed upon a plan which may appease American demands while at the same time avoiding harm to the Chinese economy may be viewed as a sign of Xi’s ability to enact victories for China at the international negotiating table.

A photo of Mr. Trump slouching and Mr. Xi sitting upright at a meeting in Florida ricocheted across Chinese news media. Photo credit: People’s Daily

To this effect, Chinese state media seems to have placed the outcome of the summit firmly in the victory column for Xi, which will boost his own already strong reputation within China. Xi has been attempting to rebrand China globally as a responsible international leader with a cool-headed practicality that favors long term stability over rash action in areas such as climate change and finance. In the eyes of the Chinese government, in addition to many other nations around the world, both allies of the US and not, Trump is seen as an unpredictable force prepared to completely forgo tradition and swing wildly between various positions without warning. That Xi is seen as having stood toe-to-toe with the hot-headed leader and held his own on behalf of the Chinese people will undoubtably cause a great swell of support for him domestically, support which he can parlay further down the line into an even stronger mandate of governance both domestically and, perhaps, internationally as well.

No Clear Direction For Taiwan in Charting Its Own Path

WHILE THERE was much apprehension about how the issue of Taiwan would be dealt with at this particular meeting, it seems that the importance of the issue will continue to be downplayed for the time being. Although some had feared that a fourth US-China communique spelling out Washington’s support for China’s “One China Principle” might have come out of the meeting, the lack of such a document seem to have assuaged fears of US abandonment at least temporarily. Taipei has had a muted response to the meeting, stating that as a member of the East Asia region it welcome any progress towards peace and stability in the region, and looked forward to working with all parties in the future. This neutral tone may reflect the difficulty that the current United States government has placed upon Taiwan in navigating the political waters of the current US-Taiwan relationship. The Tsai-Trump phone call and the administration’s initial hostility towards Beijing may have given some reason to believe that Trump might in fact come out swinging in support of Taiwanese independence, yet the rollback of those threats and the de-prioritization of the Taiwan issue in favor of others put this support in a precarious situation, making it impossible for Taiwan act with any certainty one way or the other.

However, this is not to say that the White House has utterly jettisoned its relationship with Taiwan, although the relationship might have turned decidedly militaristic in nature, a fact which may end up doing more harm to Taiwan in the long run. In particular is the rumor of renewed talks over a relatively large arms sale to the Taiwanese government, larger at least than what previous administrations had been willing to offer, including the possible Taiwanese procurement of the long sought after Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II multirole jets, a procurement the Taiwanese Defense Ministry has stated it would welcome. Most significantly, however, is the United State’s proposal to install a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense antimissile system on Taiwanese soil, something which it recently did in South Korea, prompting a severely negative effect in the China-South Korea relationship.

THAAD firing during an exercise in 2013. Photo credit: U.S. Department of Defense/CC

On the other hand, the introduction of the notion of installing the THAAD on Taiwan has caused quite a bit of consternation within the Taiwanese government, as the missile system would not be immediately justifiable in terms of defense, seeing as China does not have the military capacity to launch a full scale invasion of the island at the moment. Furthermore, many like Taiwanese Defense Minister Feng Shih-Kuan fear that the installation of the facility on Taiwan might further antagonize China into pursuing a military recourse to the issue, though the likelihood of this happening remains subject to debate. Regardless, his statement that Taiwan does not fight other countries’ wars in regards to the potential installation of the facility betrays Taipei’s views that the issue at hand is being considered almost entirely for the United States’ own advantage, not the sustainable benefit of Taiwan. Though some, like the New Power Party’s Freddy Lim, have publicly argued that all possible military benefits to Taiwan should be considered by the government, the Trump administration’s behavior up to the current moment leaves reason to doubt that the United States would be willing to back Taiwan in a potential military conflict with China. Some may argue that this in itself justifies the procurement of such weaponry, while others may say that such a move may in fact accelerate the path to such a conflict in and of itself.

An Increasingly Confident China on the Horizon?

VIEWING THE summit in hindsight, it appears that despite the boisterous rhetoric that at times spews from the White House, China might in fact have begun to view the Trump administration as the manifestation of proverbial “paper tiger”: that is, the view of Trump as the leader of a Western superpower who makes a lot of noise but who is easily persuaded into backing down if handled correctly. Emboldened by a series of concessions by both Tillerson and Trump as well as the seeming marginalization of Steve Bannon and others in favor of a presumably more pro-China Jared Kushner, the Chinese government may feel empowered to take further action to grow its own sphere of influence. However, the significance of the US strike in Syria will certainly not slip their notice, and as the Trump administration continues to ruminate on the possibility of a more militarized Asia Pacific, they will most likely be wary of a notoriously thin-skinned Trump launching a military operation closer to their own backyard in an attempt to preserve his ego. Regardless of which outcome eventually prevails, however, what can be certain is that with each passing failed opportunity to bring up the Taiwan issue with China in any meaningful way, uncertainty will continue to grow within the Taiwanese government about the stability of their relationship with the United States.

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