Have you ever seen a boxer get knocked out in a fight before the bell even rang?
If you follow the rush-to-judgement analysis coming out of some outlets when it comes to U.S. President Donald Trump’s Friday-night chat with Chinese President Xi Jinping, you might believe Trump just signed away Hawaii. You might think the new U.S. administration has been completely crushed before the first punches are even thrown in what will be a historic, great power struggle over the next few years.
We should be clear: In fact, Trump did not “change tack,” as said in a report by Reuters, or back down to Beijing, as judged by the New York Times, implying that the new administration made some major concession to China in acknowledging the reality that is the One China policy.
What Trump did was simple and quite expected — he followed a standard line of thinking that dates back to the Nixon administration. Clearly no ground was ceded.
Indeed, let’s recall for a moment what most in Washington consider the One China policy to be, setting aside Beijing’s fantasy version of it. From the Shanghai Communique, the foundation of the U.S.-China relations:
“The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China…”
To me that is no game-changer. It’s just admitting the obvious. No knockout punch here.
But from that simple statement the plot thickens. As many commentators have pointed out (hat tip to my colleagues over at Global Taiwan Institute for pointing this out) — to “acknowledge” does not mean that the United States accepts such a position.
So now that Trump has simply followed decades of standard U.S. policy when it comes to China and Taiwan, we move on to the harder questions. The real question is where do U.S.-China ties go from here? There is no bigger open question in foreign policy facing the Trump Administration today than what it will do about China’s rising power and its coercive policies throughout the Indo-Pacific region. Will China rise peacefully, as the esteemed John Mearsheimer loves to ask, or will we spring Graham Allison’s Thucydides Trap?
Unfortunately, the future looks quite bleak. Step back for a second and take the 30,000-foot view of where U.S.-China relations are today. The scope and sheer amount of problems both nations have between them is nothing short of historic. In fact, Washington and Beijing face four possible pathways towards a major crisis: territorial tension in the East and South China Seas, Taiwan, and now a growing squabble over trillions of dollars in bilateral trade. Any of these could lead to a major showdown between the world’s two biggest economic and military giants. Combine that with their own unique types of nationalism budding at home, and neither America nor China seem like they will back down anytime soon.
And it is quite obvious that the Trump administration, stacked with Asia wonks itching to push back against years of Chinese coercion, has many options on the table. The new team in the White House could, for example, look at quite a few policy options, such as:
– Beginning the process of helping Taiwan rebuild its aging military, which is currently armed with submarines better suited to fighting World War II than the technologically sophisticated wars of the future. Some have argued to turn the island nation into the military equivalent of a porcupine — ensuring any military action by China would be costly and hopefully not worth the trouble of an attack.
– Following through with a pledge to rebuild the U.S. military into a fighting force that China would not want to mess with in any possible combat domain. With specific focus on naval, air, and cyber capabilities, Beijing would need to think long and hard about any sort of kinetic conflict with America. In fact, the Trump team should study the recent report published by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments that details in the most comprehensive terms how to restore American seapower — an area of weakness Washington must shore up soon.
– It could conclude bilateral trade agreements with Japan, Vietnam and many others, replacing the Trans-Pacific Partnership slowly but surely, and ensuring that Washington is tied economically to the Asia-Pacific for generations to come.
– Forge a real partnership with India, with the goal of an eventual alliance of some sort. Washington and New Delhi have shared interests in growing their economic ties. Now with China’s dangerous actions in recent years, the two sides must shed any apprehension and form a more robust and committed partnership.
– Trump also wants to warm ties with Russia, and if somehow successful, this would leave China alone without a great-power partner to rely on.
Trump’s admitting the obvious gives no advantage to Beijing. It just means the bell just rang in what is likely to be a 12-round slugfest that could go on for decades.