Trump and China show each other their strength

Not Islamic terrorism raising its ugly head again and again, not even the growing role that Russian president Vladimir Putin is taking on himself occupies the first place on the agenda of US President-elect Donald Trump. The first place on Trump’s agenda is the relationship of the United States with the Chinese dragon and the four tigers of Asia (Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, and Hong Kong).

This is not surprising, considering that throughout his campaign, Trump has been pointing fingers at China on various occasions. He often attacked China during the speeches he gave in the “rust belt” states (once prosperous heavy industrial cities, that later declined greatly), which recorded unexpected victories. This approach also provided a three-minute video that went viral, in which trump repeats the word “China” in various events held in the course of the campaign.

Trump sees the Chinese as an economic enemy of the United States and believes that the United States should manage its relationship with China under this perception. This stance is based on a loss of between 2 to 2.4 million jobs at the hands of US citizens, which he said had been stolen by the Chinese between 1999 and 2011. That includes the transfer of many companies and factories operated on US soil, to China. This transfer has been done primarily because of significantly lower production and operating costs in China. This act, Trump says, is a plunder and should be rightfully returned to its original owners, i.e. the American public. More so, the lack of international supervision on the rate of the Chinese yuan allows Chinese exporters to gain an advantage over competitors from other countries. This advantage is due to the monopoly concept of the Chinese government on the rate of the currency, which is not subject to international exchange currencies, as accepted in the international economic arena. Trump reiterated during the campaign that if he is to be elected, he will act to restore jobs into American hands and bind the Chinese currency to the accepted international standards. At one of the election rallies, he asked the audience: ‘When was the last time anyone saw us win, for example, China, in the trade agreement?’ and without leaving the audience much time to think about it he cried ‘They’re killing us, I will beat China, all the time, every time’.

And what has Trump done, soon after being elected, following the same claims raised during his campaign? Picked up a phone call from Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-Wen. The conversation took place earlier this month (December 3rd, 2016) and lasted about ten minutes. But the content or duration of the call does not matter – the importance lies in the very existence of the conversation between the two sides, an American president on one side of the line and the Taiwanese president on the other. The disconnection, or rather imaginary gap between the two sides, started from the historical visit of Richard Nixon to China in 1971. He supported transferring  the seat representing China at the United Nations at the hands of Taiwan, also known as ‘Republic of China’ to China, also known as ‘People’s republic of China’.In 1979 the next step to distancing the two countries occurred:US President Jimmy Carter transferred the embassy in Taipei, capital of Taiwan, to Beijing, capital of China. This transfer, in addition to adding a new embassy, relates to a clear Chinese policy known as ‘The One China Policy’. According to this policy, China requires that the requesting country to establish diplomatic relations with it, first must break relations with Taiwan. For the simple reason – China does not recognize the independence of Taiwan, which was established as an independent state after the Chinese civil war ended in 1949. The communists overpowered the communists that up until then dominated the entire territory of China. At the end of the war, the republicans were pushed away to what is now called Taiwan. Dozens of years have passed, and the aspiration of China to exercise its sovereignty over Taiwan remains.

Why imaginary gap? Because, as Trump himself tweeted: ‘I wonder how the United States sells Taiwan billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment, yet ask me to reject a call wishing me good luck”. Indeed, Trump is right: The United States sold and is currently selling Taiwan billions of dollars’ worth of weapons, is having trade relations over dozens of billions of dollars each year (86.9 billion in 2015) and in addition to all this is assures Taiwan’s security and integrity of democratic government against external threats, including threats on China’s part. The phone call was not the end of it. A series of tweets on Trumps part, and replies to them in articles published in newspapers owned by the Chinese government, extended the clash. The theft or confiscation of a US underwater unmanned vessel, cruising in international waters off the coast of China, by Chinese forces was part of the same dispute.

The following week (22 December 2016), the United States announced that the shopping site Tao-Bao, belonging to Chinese Alibaba, was again introduced into the blacklist of American Business that were marked “questionable” for allegedly selling counterfeit goods, after being removed from it in 2012. the Chinese company spokesman expressed regret over the decision and questioned whether it was a result of the turbid political atmosphere, created recently between the United States and China rather than for reasons of interest.Trump announced the same day that the economist Peter Navarro, who supports tough stance with China on trade, will be appointed to head the new trade council to be set up in the White House. The phone call and the rest of friction between China and the United States described in the previous paragraph, should be seen within the broader context and the understanding that this is not the first time that the relations between the US and Taiwan – and how China sees them – made headlines. In 1996, the Taiwan Strait Crisis occurred. This crisis was the result of a series of missile tests conducted by China in the waters surrounding Taiwan, including Taiwan Strait, commencing from 21 of July 1995 until 23 of March 1996. The first salvo of rockets was fired in intention to send a clear message to the government of Taiwan, led then by Lee Teng-hui. The message was intended to prevent her from withdrawing the agreement reached in 1992 on policy of ‘One China’ or to choose a policy that rejects the unification with China and to declare unilateral independence. One of the grounds for the missile testing and the message it conveyed, was Lee’s official visit to the United States in July 1995.

15 years later, in January 2010, the subject made headlines again following a large arms deal signed between the US and Taiwan. According to the announcement by Obama’s administration to the Congress, the arms deal valued at 6.4$ billion will include Black Hawk helicopters, anti-missile Patriot missiles, and minesweeping ships. Per the same announcement, the arms deal was intended to contribute Taiwan’s security and stability in relation to China. Laura Tischler, a spokeswoman for the State Department at the time, noted that the transaction complies with existing agreements between the US, China, and Taiwan. China’s response to the transaction was not long in coming. An aggressive post issued by the Chinese news agency hinted that the Chinese government may shift their position regarding sanctions on Iran. According to the Chinese government news agency, the “the deal will affect China’s cooperation regarding important international and regional issues”.

A statement from the Chinese Foreign Ministry read that China will suspend military cooperation with the United States. The statement further noted “given the serious damage and severe impact of the weaponry contract, we decided to suspend planned military visits.” In addition, the notice stated “further actions shall take place in accordance with the development of the crisis”.  If so, why does Trump want to undermine the existing order again?What is he trying to achieve?What did he hope will be the result of a telephone conversation with President of Taiwan? Many answers have been given for this question, most of which seek to draw Trump as an ignorant, as one that doesn’t have a clue about the international arena and is surrounded by likeminded people. These answers suspiciously match the editorials of the Chinese press firms, and therefore are likely to be bias. Furthermore, it is unlikely that trump and his advisors don’t know anything about what is happening in Asia, given that throughout the election campaign they were constantly discussing these issues. The answer seems to be deeper and perhaps more difficult to digest. This approach seems to be Trump’s attempt to achieve two things. First, to give himself and the United States an advantage in future negotiations he plans to conduct with the Chinese government, regarding the various economic issues mentioned earlier;Second, to strengthen the four Tigers (Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea and Hong Kong) that surround China have close diplomatic and economic relations with the United States. China’s weakening may greatly strengthen those countries, and thus redeem some power to the United States in the international and Asian arena, and also strengthen those countries, whom depend widely on the United States’ defense.

Bottom line: are China and the United States facing a continuing struggle? The answer is yes. This struggle will focus on economic or diplomatic levels only and will not be violent struggle, god forbid turn into a war. Both sides, which constitute the two largest markets in the world and the main trade partners of each other, have too much to lose and very little to gain from war, and it certainly seems that both sides understand that. Trump himself understands from his past life as a businessman, that China and the United States are inseparable. Trump’s companies owe billions of dollars to the Bank of China (one of the largest banks in China, which is controlled by the government), and may demand the repayment of these debts in the near future. Also, Chinese companies are occupying 11% of the commercial space in the International Trump Tower in Manhattan, New York, and the renewal of the contract should take place soon. Not renewing the contract may strike a painful blow to Trump’s empire, thus assuring that he understands the implications of a disconnection with China, on his own private pocket and the public’s as well.

It doesn’t appear that he of all people will try to harm the economic ties binding the two countries. So, if this is the case, why are both sides intensifying their statements? It seems that the answer is very simple: that’s how things have, and always will be done. That’s how they do business and the way politics work, whether you like it or not. Both sides are showing muscles, and the first to show fear of the opponent’s muscles loses. One can easily believe that Trump and his advisors, the Chinese government, and other governments in Asia understand this, and are working on one hand to flex their muscles to show their power and their willingness to combat and on the other hand are sending soothing messages below the surface to avoid harming common interests, which in many cases exceed what they might gain from struggles, real or mock. Along with all this, you need to remember the following simple fact: Trump has not yet been officially appointed president and he will enter the White House in only another month (January 20, 2017, to be exact) so everything done or said by then could be considered meaningless speculations or prophecy. Only time will tell.

About the Author
Researcher and PhD student at the Middle Eastern studies department, Bar-Ilan University.