Donald Trump’s collision course with China

Without realising it, US voters appear to have opened the gates to a new cold war

by: Edward Luce

The biggest surprise since Donald Trump’s election victory is his decision to pick a fight with China.

Not once in his campaign did he mention the word Taiwan. Yet all of a sudden there is now a threat over America’s “One China” policy — a bedrock in today’s unstable global order.

Beijing has so far chosen to blame a wily Taiwan for the call between Mr Trump and his Taiwanese counterpart — the US president-elect is “as ignorant as a child”, says China’s state media.

On Sunday China agreed to return an underwater drone it had seized from a US naval vessel. Mr Trump claimed it had been stolen. China accused him of “overhyping” the incident. Next time, Beijing is unlikely to let him off the hook so easily.

Without realising it, the US electorate appears to have opened the gates to a new cold war in which America’s hand will be far less strong than it was first time round. One of the reasons the US won the original one was its skill at breaking China away from the Soviet block. Detente between Richard Nixon’s US and Mao Zedong’s China in 1972 cemented the Sino-Soviet split and weakened Moscow’s global appeal. Mr Trump plans to do the reverse.
His strong rhetoric against China is mirrored only by his warm overtures to Vladimir Putin’s Russia. It remains to be seen what strategic gain Mr Trump will derive from doing deals with Russia — a country that is stoking illiberal democracy in Europe and that played a role in helping Mr Trump defeat Hillary Clinton. But Mr Trump’s antagonism towards China is a gamble without an upside.

Avoiding a US-China conflict will take Nixonian dexterity. Mr Trump is no Nixon. For all his abuse of domestic law, Nixon was a devout student of global affairs who grasped the geopolitical chessboard. Mr Trump is a 70-year-old neophyte with no interest in rectifying the gaps in his knowledge. He spurns the presidential daily intelligence briefings because they are too dull. Nor do any of Mr Trump’s advisers resemble Henry Kissinger, who was chief architect of the One China policy that Mr Trump is threatening to rip up. Mr Trump’s senior appointees reflect both his anti-China and pro-Russia intentions.

Michael Flynn, the retired lieutenant general who will play a key role as Mr Trump’s national security adviser, believes China is in league with Isis and other Islamist terrorist groups to defeat the US. It is a breathtaking fiction. Before he joined the Trump campaign, Mr Flynn believed Russia was part of the same anti-US axis. He has since dropped his Russia hawkishness for a Trumpian admiration.
Conversely, Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s nominee as secretary of state, is an old friend of Russia — Mr Putin awarded him the Russian Order of Friendship in 2013. At his confirmation hearings next month, the world will learn how warmly Mr Tillerson feels towards Moscow.

Several Republican senators, including John McCain, America’s leading Russia hawk, plan to make Mr Tillerson’s declaration that Russia interfered in the US election a condition of their support for him — an intelligence finding Mr Trump angrily rejects.

It is possible Mr Tillerson’s prospects could fall at that hurdle. More likely is that he will find a way of finessing the Russia hawks without contradicting Mr Trump.
So what will result from Mr Trump’s China gamble? The initial effect will be confusion. Mr Trump’s Taiwan threat took China as much by surprise as it did everyone else. In its guarded response, China gave Mr Trump room to correct what it chose to interpret as a naive mistake.

The next step will be escalating tension. Mr Trump wants to be known as the president who returns manufacturing jobs to the US, and keeps existing ones from moving overseas. Wresting concessions from China — such as the voluntary export restraint Japan adopted in the late 1980s — is a key part of the story he wants to tell the American people. 

Mr Trump is using the threat to the One China policy as leverage in that quest. If he persists, which I believe he will, it will backfire. China will respond by putting a further squeeze on disaffected US investors, whose complaints about thin profits and Chinese intellectual property theft are becoming louder by the day. Far from checking Washington’s China-bashing, as US businesses have done in the past, many will be cheering Mr Trump on.

Once the dispute sets in, the risk of conflict will rise. China will find a way of testing Mr Trump’s resolve early into his presidency — something a little tougher than a seized naval drone. That is what happened with George W Bush in 2001 when it forced a US spyplane to land on China’s territory. The resulting stand-off, and eventual release of the American crew, was quickly forgotten after the 9/11 terrorist attacks a few months later.

Contrary to Mr Flynn’s view, China is a natural ally in America’s struggle against Islamist terrorism.

The scope for an accident with today’s far more assertive China — whether over Taiwan, the South China Sea, or the East China Sea — is considerably greater than in 2001. China’s military clout is far greater than it was then. Just last week, new Chinese missile batteries were detected on reclaimed land in the South China Sea.

Can we trust Mr Trump’s instincts in a crisis? Will Mr Putin act as a restraint — or even a mediator — between a defensive US and a rising China? We cannot yet know the answer. What we do know is that Mr Trump’s closest adviser is a man who sees China as a mortal foe.

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