Back to the Jungle?

A Chinese Democrat Assesses Trump’s China Policy

The recent election of Donald J. Trump as the president of the United States is likely to have a profound effect on world history. The issue is not the controversies raised by Trump’s character, personality, abilities, and preferences, but rather how his unique role as U.S. president will make his personality a major factor in world trends. To be sure, Trump’s victory is first and foremost a product of America’s internal politics, and reflects the will of the American electorate. Given the influence this president will have on the rest of the world as well, we have cause to blame the American electorate for short-sightedness, because this new president—based on many remarks he has made in the short time since his election—may take humanity backward, from the civilized society still being constructed with great difficulty to reflect universal values such as democracy, human rights, peace, and international responsibility, to a primitive society under the Law of the Jungle, in which selfishness and avarice prevail, and the weak are devoured by the strong. Such a trend will not strengthen the United States in its competition with its rising rival China, as some believe. On the contrary, it will weaken America’s ability to defend its uniquely influential and uniquely beneficial position in international affairs.

Trump May Change the Principles that Underlie American Foreign Policy

During the campaign, Trump indicated that he views democracy-promotion as inconsistent with American interests. “We have a lot to be proud of,” he stated in a speech in Washington, D.C. in April 2016, but then went on: “After the Cold War, our foreign policy veered badly off course . . . this led to one foreign policy disaster after another. We went from mistakes in Iraq to Egypt to Libya, to President Obama’s line in the sand in Syria. Each of these actions have [sic] helped to throw the region into chaos, and gave ISIS the space it needs to grow and prosper.” He attributed this to “the dangerous idea that we could make Western democracies out of countries that had no experience or interest in becoming a Western Democracy.” Trump declared that he would “work with our allies to reinvigorate Western values and institutions,” but said he would not try to “spread ‘universal values’ that not everyone shares.” The idea that democratic values are valid only in the West is a dangerous departure from the long and honorable tradition of American foreign policy.

In Trump’s view, instead, what matters is only “making America great again.” In his view, Obama “crippled us with wasteful spending, massive debt, low growth, a huge trade deficit and open borders. . . We’re rebuilding other countries while weakening our own. Ending the theft of American jobs will give us the resources we need to rebuild our military and regain our financial independence and strength.” Taken together with his favorable remarks about Vladimir Putin and the cooperative tone of his initial phone call with Putin, these statements suggest he might seek to remake the global strategic picture, setting aside competition with other big powers to produce a condominium that would allow the U.S. to withdraw from what he sees as its overextended global position in Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia. These indications have been welcomed by self-described strategic realists who favor the prospects of a major power condominium as a way to reduce global tensions. But is this actually the direction of Trump’s China policy? Early indications seem instead to point in the direction of confrontation.

Trump and China: Confrontation or Business Partner?

As he did during the presidential campaign, since taking office, Donald J. Trump has made many statements that seem to indicate an intention to confront China on both trade and military issues. He criticized Beijing for manipulating the exchange rate and engaging in unfair trading practices, complained about China’s theft of American intellectual property and jobs, and threatened to impose a tariff of 45 percent on Chinese imports to deal with America’s enormous trade deficit with China. He appointed Peter Navarro, who has written several books urging the United States to push back against China’s economic and military expansion, as chairman of the newly created White House National Trade Council. Trump accepted a congratulatory phone call on his election from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, referred to her as “President,” and indicated that he is not wedded to the longstanding American “one China” policy relating to Taiwan. His Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, stated during his confirmation hearing that the Trump Administration would not allow China access to islands it controls in the South China Sea; this position was backed up by White House spokesman Sean Spicer, and Trump issued a truculent Tweet after China’s temporary seizure of an underwater drone operated by the U.S. Navy in the region. Although Trump and Tillerson moderated their positions later—among other things, confirming a somewhat ambiguous “our” one China policy—many China critics in the U.S. and pro-democracy liberals in China are hoping for a new American hard line on China. They believe that confrontation with the U.S. will damage the Chinese economy and the Beijing regime’s legitimacy, thereby speeding the process of democratic transformation.

But to interpret these statements as a guide to future policy is to mistake noise for substance. In fact, Trump’s China policy will be guided by his business instincts, and these will not allow him to seek confrontation with Beijing.

Consider the likely consequences of a U.S.-China trade war. The two economies are inseparably entwined: China is America’s second-largest trading partner, third-largest export market, largest source of imports, and largest creditor nation. The U.S. is China’s second-largest trading partner, top export market, and fifth-largest source of imports. From 2007 to 2014, Sino-U.S. trade volume rose 9.1 percent per annum, from $302.1 billion to $555.1 billion, twice the annual rate of growth in global trade during that period (around 4.5 percent). The U.S. still has an enormous trade deficit in this relationship, amounting to $365.7 billion in 2015. But more than a third of the value of China’s exports to the U.S. consists of commercial products from other countries. This implies that a trade war with China in the form of higher tariffs or reducing imports would create chaos in the global production chain and penalize countries other than China. Furthermore, Trump’s proposals for massive tax reductions to stimulate investment and for an expansion of infrastructure to increase jobs are bound to result in budget deficits. These deficits will increase demand, and if the government prevents the use of imports to satisfy this demand, the result will be rising prices, rising interest rates, the rising value of the dollar, and a decrease in exports, reinforcing the already existing trade deficit at the cost of domestic living standards.

On the other hand, there is reason to doubt that a trade war on China would have a crippling effect on China’s economy. Economics often refers to investment, consumption, and net exports as the “troika” that drives GDP growth. The 2015 Statistical Bulletin of National Economic and Social Development,published by the People’s Republic of China National Bureau of Statistics, stated that China’s GDP that year totaled 67,670.8 billion renminbi, investment in fixed assets 56,200.0 billion renminbi, retail sales of consumer goods 30,093.1 billion renminbi, and commodity imports and exports 24,574.1 billion renminbi, with exports of 14,125.5 billion renminbi exceeding imports by only 3,677 billion renminbi. Clearly, the net export item made only a modest contribution to the overall economy, even allowing for exaggeration in China’s official statistics. A trade war blocking some export products would affect China’s domestic investment and consumption, but given the enormous scale of the Chinese economy, shortfalls in one area can be made up elsewhere, and a trade war in one sector will not significantly damage China’s overall economy. Not to mention that the U.S. is only China’s second-largest trading partner, although its largest export market.

For these reasons, a trade war with China is hardly an attractive proposition for President Trump. It would create chaos in the global production chain and penalize countries other than China, including many American allies and America itself.

War over Taiwan or the South China Sea?

Some analysts believe Trump will use military tensions over Taiwan or in the South China Sea as bargaining chips to force China to make trade concessions. He may expect that crises in these two areas will not reach the level of military confrontation because China will back down in the face of superior American military power. If so, this calculation is overly optimistic, both because the military balance between the two powers is less unequal than many observers realize, and because territorial issues near China’s shores are of more importance to Xi Jinping than to the new president of United States.

The rapid growth of China’s military strength is a fact. While Beijing could only look on with frustration when U.S. aircraft carriers flaunted their strength in the Taiwan Strait in 1996, the Chinese military now has effective means to deal with aircraft carriers in the shape of the Dong-Feng-21D (DF-21D) anti-ship ballistic missile. Air Force Magazine has called the DF-21D “the first post-Cold War capability that is both potentially capable of stopping our naval power projection and deliberately designed for that purpose.” With a 1,500-kilometer range that effectively covers much of the South China Sea, the DF-21D could prevent an American aircraft carrier from entering the first island chain to render aid to Taiwan if war broke out. And the deployment of military aircraft from U.S. bases in Okinawa or Darwin would give Beijing justification for expanding the scale of the war by launching attacks on Japan or Australia. An attempt by the U.S. to prevent the Chinese armed forces from occupying Taiwan by directly attacking guided missile launch pads along the Chinese coast would spread the flames of war to the Chinese mainland and spur an even more intense counterattack from Beijing, targeting Guam or perhaps even Hawaii.

Some believe that the People’s Liberation Army’s combat capabilities have been compromised by rampant corruption. Corruption is a fact, but it is also a fact that China’s military strength has advanced rapidly. A recent RAND Corporation report assessed the military balance between the two and concluded that U.S. military dominance over China is a “receding frontier,” partly because of China’s technological advances in missiles, submarine warfare, and cyberwarfare, and partly because China’s proximity to the theater of battle gives it an advantage in sustaining military operations. Moreover, a purely military analysis overlooks the important element of risk tolerance. No doubt, a severe and lengthy conflict would inflict severe losses on China. According to another RAND study, in such a conflict the U.S. would suffer a decrease of 5-10 percent in GDP, but China’s GDP could sink by as much as 25-35 percent. In his new book Crouching Tiger: What China’s Militarism Means for the World, Peter Navarro even predicts the possible outbreak of nuclear war.

Yet Xi Jinping has stronger motivations to undertake such a gamble than Donald Trump. Xi’s publicly articulated “China Dream,” which is the foundation of his regime’s legitimacy, is the “dream of a strong nation,” and China cannot be a strong nation without consummating its control over Taiwan, the strategically vital island 90 nautical miles off its coast. Moreover, politically, unification across the Strait is the fundamental symbol of “China’s rise” and the “great resurgence of the Chinese nation” through which Xi seeks to place himself on the same historical plane as Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, if not higher. Success in the mission to unify Taiwan would enhance the Chinese Communist Party’s (C.C.P.) legitimacy at home, push its economic, political, and human rights failings to the background, and vanquish thoughts of independence among people in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong. For Beijing, the Taiwan issue has become even more urgent recently, as public sentiment in Taiwan has moved increasingly away from unification toward independence. The C.C.P. has reaped minuscule rewards from its efforts to win over Taiwan’s political and business elite and ordinary people through economic means, while the Democratic Progressive Party’s rise to power has further dimmed the prospects for unification, and employing military hawks to talk about “peaceful unification” has become pointless.1

Second only to Taiwan as a priority for Beijing is the South China Sea. Although the Nationalist Chinese government declared China’s sovereignty over this enormous maritime region in the 1940s, it lacked the military strength to enforce its claim. Nationalist forces were able to occupy Taiping Island, not very far from Taiwan, in 1946 with only the aid of American-supplied warships. In the ensuing 30 years, various islands and reefs were occupied by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and other countries. By the time China joined the fray in the late 1980s, Vietnam already occupied more than 20 islands and reefs with the best topography in the Spratly Islands. But China has a long-term strategic vision for this region. China’s leading post-Mao strategic thinker, the late Admiral Liu Huaqing, established the principle that in order to assure the security of China’s mainland, the country must first establish dominance in the maritime region within the first island chain, and then extend its presence beyond the second island chain and into the high seas by 2020.2

In this vision, the Spratly Island group is of crucial strategic importance, because of its location in the southern part of the South China Sea. In the west, the Spratlys facilitate control of the Strait of Malacca (through which 85% percent of China’s oil imports pass); to the east, they facilitate breaking through the second island chain; and to the north they form part of an encirclement of Taiwan. The area also offers a strategic hideout for China’s nuclear-armed submarines, its waters deep enough to ensure China’s ability to make a second nuclear strike. That is why Beijing snatched up the remaining Spratly Islands in the late 1980s, and in recent years has been reclaiming land and expanding military installations on the islands.

Trump’s emphasis is on American soil, not on distant Taiwan or the South China Sea. Despite his braggadocio, his focus on profit and loss will make him calculate closely before any major decision. There is nothing to suggest that Trump will take a major risk of economic recession and nuclear war for the sake of American promises to Taiwan based on shared democratic values, or treaty commitments to allies like the Philippines.

Should the Trump Administration indeed seek confrontation over either of these strategic sites, China is unlikely to back down. Beijing is an old hand at dealing with this kind of bluff. Beijing will publicly proclaim that the Taiwan issue involves fundamental principles and cannot be used as a bargaining chip. It will then find an opportune moment and appropriate method to give Trump some face or benefit, and thereby achieve its fundamental strategic objectives. The Chinese have an old saying: Any problem that can be settled with money is not a problem.

The Logic of “Realism”

As a businessman, Trump will seek to solve problems through trade-offs, admire strength, and not be concerned with principles. He has expressed admiration for Deng Xiaoping in violently suppressing the 1989 Democracy Movement, as well as for Putin, even suggesting at one point that he could accept Russia’s annexing of Crimea, although he later characterized Russian behavior in harsher terms. Trump’s real goal is not to confront China, but to align with fellow strongmen Xi and Vladimir Putin in order to create space for the U.S. to withdraw from its role of world policeman. These are the characteristics of life in the jungle.

This notion is compatible with the theory of “realism” in international relations. Harvard-based British historian Niall Ferguson recently published an article analyzing veteran diplomat Henry Kissinger’s recent remarks (in particular his 2014 book, World Order) to suggest that Kissinger has advised Trump to “not go all-out into a confrontation with China, whether on trade or the South China Sea. Rather, seek ‘comprehensive discussion’ and aim to pursue that policy of dialogue and ‘co-evolution.’” Regarding Russia, “The central deal, Kissinger argues, would turn Ukraine into ‘a bridge between NATO and Russia rather than an outpost of either side.’” Ferguson speculates that Kissinger has counseled Trump to model himself on the pre-war president Theodore Roosevelt, who used the principle of actual strength to establish an international order that allocated spheres of influence to regional great powers. Ferguson refers to this authoritarian alliance of China, the U.S., and Russia as a “new world order.”

In my view, however, it is not feasible for China, the U.S. and Russia to form such an alliance. The relationship between China and Russia is fundamentally different from the kind of relationship either of them is capable of forming with the United States. From the C.C.P.’s perspective, resisting pressure from the U.S. in the east requires the party-state to expand its Western Development Strategy to ensure the stability and border security of the ethnic regions in its northwest and southwest, and to obtain petroleum and natural gas from Central Asia and Russia. These goals entail cooperative relations with Russia. Even more important is that Russian military products (especially military aircraft engines) have been crucial to China’s military modernization; China’s aircraft carriers, submarines, guided missiles, medium- and long-range bombers, and active duty third- or fourth-generation fighter planes were almost all developed on the foundation of Russian equipment.

Russia also needs an alliance with China. Initially, Putin continued the Yeltsin era’s “normal state relations” with China, but as relations between Russia and the West became increasingly strained over the past 10 years, Putin felt compelled to join hands with China. This process accelerated after the Crimean crisis in March 2014, when the two sides signed a 30-year agreement for natural gas supply valued at more than U.S.$400 billion. In June 2016, Putin made a whirlwind visit to China and signed a “joint statement on strengthening global strategic stability,” which expressed concern over increasing “negative factors” affecting global strategic stability. Allegations of attempts in some quarters to serve national interests through the threat of force, resulting in out-of-control growth of military power that was shaking the global strategic stability system, were clearly aimed at the U.S. It was the first high-profile joint statement of this kind by China and Russia since the end of the Cold War.

More than strategic interests counsel Moscow-Beijing cooperation against Washington.  Unlike in the world that Teddy Roosevelt knew, the great powers today have profound conflicts over values and ideology, especially when it comes to the U.S. and the C.C.P.’s China. China and Russia join hands against the U.S. partly to protect their autocratic models against a democratic model that has at least until now enjoyed the moral advantage. Similarly, Beijing’s long-term blood transfusions to the North Korean regime reveal that Beijing sees Pyongyang as a member of the same species in terms of ideology and regime. By contrast, Beijing feels compelled to regard the U.S. as its fundamental opponent, because the values and political system that America represents are subversive to the communist regime. The current position of “no conflict” and “no confrontation” with the U.S. is merely public diplomatic language on the part of C.C.P. leaders, while a “silent test of strength” is what truly reflects the thinking of Zhongnanhai’s dictators. This is why the U.S. and China cannot possibly achieve a “strategic balance” or any kind of “co-governance” in the foreseeable future. Major nation-states can form a “balance of power” and coexist over the long term, but antagonism will always exist between fundamentally opposite major powers, because an autocratic regime will always regard the democratic system as a threat.3

Kissinger has come under widespread criticism from China’s liberal intellectuals precisely because he claims to understand China. But his long-term contact with generations of Chinese communist leaders has led him consciously or unconsciously to equate China with the C.C.P., and to consider the C.C.P. a representative of Chinese “culture.” VOA has reported that Kissinger advised Trump to “place someone who understands Chinese history and culture in his personal team, to serve as a liaison between the U.S. and the Chinese government,” and at the same time that “American leaders should perceive what this country’s fundamental national interests are, and not have their line of vision blocked by disputes that currently exist between the two sides.” Yet using the cultural angle to decipher China is a completely different matter from using it to decipher the C.C.P. Some American scholars or political figures attribute mysterious powers to “culture” and consequently end up misreading their targets. Kissinger’s way of posing the question of China’s “fundamental national interests” is wrong because “China” can be the nation-state China, or it can be the C.C.P.’s China, and there is a vast difference between the two. The party-state has always regarded the security of the regime as paramount, and when it feels it is necessary, it places the regime’s survival needs above the interests the Chinese people. The fact that it takes the democratic U.S. system as a threat is proof of this point.

Return to the Jungle?

After years of failed efforts to build democracies in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is understandable that many Americans are tempted to undertake a strategic contraction and return to isolationism. But such a strategy would imply abandoning the ideals on which America was founded and the shared values that advance humanity.

If America stands for no more than naked national interest, it abandons the most persuasive rationale for its intervention in such regional matters as Taiwan and the South China Sea—the struggle to uphold international rule of law—and stands exposed as no better than its great-power rivals as a “hegemonist” for whom might makes right.
Trump has indicated that he has no interest in “ideology,” and that all that matters are “American interests”: “No country has ever prospered that failed to put its own interests first. Both our friends and enemies put their countries above ours and we, while being fair to them, must do the same. We will no longer surrender this country, or its people, to the false song of globalism. The nation-state remains the true foundation for happiness and harmony.”4 There is little to distinguish these words from Putin’s emphasis on national strength and Xi Jinping’s neo-nationalist “China Dream.” If America stands for no more than naked national interest, it abandons the most persuasive rationale for its intervention in such regional matters as Taiwan and the South China Sea—the struggle to uphold international rule of law—and stands exposed as no better than its great-power rivals as a “hegemonist” for whom might makes right.

A “multi-polar world” shared among the United States, Russia, and China would not be good news but a nightmare—the dawn of a new world in which the Law of the Jungle prevails. While it may be possible for the U.S. and Russia to move toward rapprochement (given that Putin doesn’t have global ideological ambitions, but only wants the U.S. to acknowledge Russia’s status as a great power), a decisive battle between China and the U.S. (or more precisely, between the C.C.P. party-state system and the constitutional democracy represented by the U.S.) is inevitable, whether in 10, 20, or 50 years. This conflict arising from essential differences between regimes will be a fight to the death in which compromise is impossible. Blindness to, or purposeful obfuscation of, this point is the fundamental error of political figures such as Kissinger. There are reasons that the C.C.P. government has treated him as a guest of honor for so long.

To avoid the expansion of C.C.P. influence and the emergence of a 21st century world of the jungle, the United States must continue to lead the struggle for liberal values—rule of law, democracy, and human rights—as it has done throughout its history. Isolationism, trade protectionism, the abandonment of Taiwan, and cooperation with dictators will in the long-run not strengthen the United States, but weaken its ability to influence China’s evolution. While the ultimate fate of China rests in the hands of the Chinese people, those fighting for democracy in China need both the help, and the example, of the United States.

—Translated by Stacy Mosher.

  1. For example, retired People’s Liberation Army (P.L.A.) Lieutenant General and former Deputy Commander of the Nanjing Military Region Wang Hongguang was quoted in the December 17, 2016 issue of Global Times as saying that Taiwan independence is the mainstream opinion in Taiwan, that the trend will continue to go toward independence and will not reverse, that there is certain to be a military conflict before 2020, and that once war breaks out in the Taiwan Strait, the P.L.A. will very possibly capture Taiwan in one stroke. See “Wang Hongguang: War will break out in the Taiwan Strait around 2020,” Global Times (in Chinese).
  2. See James R. Holmes, Red Star over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2013); Chinese edition, Beijing, Shehui kexue wenxian chubanshe, 2014, pp. 34-35. See also Li Liming and Liu Wenxiang, “Liu Huaqing’s ideas on breaking through the second island chain,” in Yong Mingxian et al. (eds), On New Strategy (in Chinese).
  3. Some theoreticians on realist diplomatic relations do not acknowledge the importance of the nature of the regime in understanding this question. For example, the American scholar John J. Mearsheimer, who advocates the theory of “offensive realism,” believes that whether China implements democracy and deeply merges into the global economic system, or becomes an autocratic and self-sufficient country, this will not matter to its behavioral display, because democratic and non-democratic countries alike emphasize security, and “having dominant power is the best means to ensure one’s own survival.” See John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, W. W. Norton & Co., 2001 (updated edition 2014, p. xi). This American scholar probably doesn’t realize that autocratic rulers will applaud viewpoints like these. From the liberal standpoint, Mearsheimer’s viewpoint must be harshly criticized.
  4. Ibid.