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US-China Relations under the Trump Administration



Ever since the Trump administration came to power, relations between the United States and China have been much tense. Now, Trump’s move to sell Taiwan 1.42 billion worth of arms has further widened the gulf between the two countries, with the Chinese Embassy in the US saying that “the Chinese government and Chinese People have every right to be outraged.”

True, the genesis of the current hostility between the United States and China can be traced back to former President Obama’s “pivot to Asia” policy, which aimed at containing China’s hegemonic posturing in the region. China continued to dominate the 2016 US Presidential election campaign, with Trump having termed Beijing as an ‘enemy.’ He had also announced his decision to impose a 45 percent import tariff on Chinese goods and promised to declare China as a currency manipulator, if elected.

With the election of Trump as President the US was therefore expected to harden its position against China. This soon became true when, even before assuming office, President Trump received a phone call from the President of Taiwan, breaking nearly four decades of diplomatic practice with China and Taiwan. Subsequently, in an interview Trump also questioned the US’ commitment to “One China” policy. This in turn generated shock waves among Chinese strategic and military experts, leading Beijing to formally register its displeasure with the US administration on Trump’s China swagger. 

 Some signs of rapprochement however emerged in the relationship when in the first phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping; President Trump agreed to honour “One China” policy. Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership also pleased China, because Beijing had charged former President Obama with the attempt of containing China under his “pivot to Asia” policy. The US’ pull out of the TPP eventually cleared the way for China to enhance its clouts in this region. Trump also refused to label China a currency manipulator. Friendly interactions between Trump and Xi at Mar-a-Lago during the latter’s visit to the US in April 2017 was viewed as a modest beginning in strengthening the bilateral ties under the new US administration.

Of course, Trump had his own substantial reasons to extend an engagement hand towards China. First, since China is one of the US’ largest creditors and the economies of the two countries are much interdependent, it was felt that tightening economic ties with Beijing would also impact the US economy adversely. Secondly, China’s help was needed for the US to prevent North Korea from developing nuclear arsenal. Third, since there is increasing tension between Russia and the US, while Russia and China have in the recent times foster strong partnership, the Trump administration’s attempt at improving ties with China also focused on preventing the possible emergence of a Russia and China-led coalition against the US. 

Unfortunately, the Trump administration’s engagement efforts did not succeed in changing China’s attitude towards the US. In fact, soon after the meeting between Trump and Xi, China condemned the US’ air attacks in Syria. China’s continued assertive posturing in the South China Sea, its ambitious Belt Road initiative, its reluctance to help the US deal with the North Korea nuclear issue and others forced the Trump administration to revisit its policy towards China. It was one of the reasons why Trump changed his stand on the NATO, saying this organisation has an important role in ensuring global peace and security. In March 2017, a US Navy destroyer sailed close to a disputed South China island controlled by China, indicating the US’ continued position on the South China Sea issue. The Trump administration’s decision to label China as one of the world’s worst human traffickers and to impose sanctions on a Chinese bank for doing business with North Korea are the latest moves towards containing China’s uncooperative behaviour.

While the way forward in the relationship between the two countries at present is looking rocky, the US and China should take pragmatic steps to address each other concerns with the intention of promoting global peace, security and development rather than looking at the bilateral relationship through the prism of their narrow national interests.


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Sumit Kumar

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