Where US-Chinese relations were defined by conflicts like the South China Sea Crisis under the Obama Administration, a trade war defines them under the Trump Administration. China is a rising global power capable of rivaling the US as the world’s only hegemonic superpower, so it is not surprising friction exists between the US and China. What truly matters, however, is how these two powerful revivals can and will manage their inherent conflicts. Diplomatic relations between world powers cannot be understood solely through the lens of bilateral relations. To comprehend the true relationships shared by state actors, observers must examine their interactions with third-party states. By looking at US interactions with the likes of North Korea and Taiwan, the Trump Administration’s treatment of China can be better understood.
Looking at events like the decision of the Trump Administration to cancel the implementation of new sanctions against North Korea, even after the collapse of the second so-called Trump-Kim Summit, and an initiative to sell Taiwan 60 F-16s, the Trump Administration has adopted a confrontational stance against Beijing. China has traditionally been North Korea’s primary ally and beneficiary, while the US has traditionally been North Korea’s primary enemy. In attempting to change this key power balance between Pyongyang, Beijing, and Washington, the Trump Administration has created an additional layer of contention with the Communist Party. Given Taiwan’s status as the homeland of China’s former leadership and Beijing’s sensitivity to Taiwan’s independence, the Trump Administration’s efforts to foster military cooperation is particularly vexing to Chinese leaders.
Through its trade war, the Trump Administration is confronting China on the trade imbalance it has with the US and the theft of intellectual property. Trump’s strategy to rebalance the US trade deficit will not be enough to actually retool the economic relationship between China and the United States. What it is doing is contributing to the overall confrontational engagement his Administration has with the government of Xi Jinping. Looking at US-Chinese relations in general, the US and China have been headed toward a major confrontation for a very long time. While leaders in both nations have sought to avoid a military confrontation, China had hoped to confront the US from a position of superior economic and diplomatic strength. The fact that US leadership, i.e. the Trump Administration and the Obama Administration, has been increasingly willing to preemptively confront Beijing changes the situation.
Over the course of the last decade, China has pursued an increasingly aggressive foreign policy toward its neighbors and other world powers. Because the US, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam, among others, united to confront Chinese aggression, Beijing was forced to scale back its plans for a takeover of the South China Sea and the East China Sea. Beijing quickly realized that it attempted to confront its neighbors and America too soon. Chinese leadership had hoped to ease tensions enough to appear defeated, but China has awoken the sleeping giant that is the United States. Beijing now hopes to appease the Trump Administration by making concessions on the economic front, but the US and its allies must continue to pursue a policy of confrontation.
Although the foreign policies initiatives of the Trump Administration should be questioned and criticized for their shortcomings, the willingness of the US to confront Chinese influence must be a fixture of US foreign policy. That is something the Obama Administration helped reintroduce into US foreign policy and it is something that the Trump Administration has escalated. In dealing with Asian affairs, the Trump Administration must, and appears to be, utilizing tertiary foreign policy issues to pressure China in order to confront Beijing on its long-term plans to dominate the region and globe. By embracing a confrontational stance against China, which does not necessarily require a confrontation between militaries, the US and its allies can blunt the growing power of China’s authoritarian leadership.
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