China policy is perhaps the most prominent of many issues where Trump has been unpredictable. China-bashing was at the core of Trump’s campaign stump speech, leading to widely-held expectations of a dramatic revamp of U.S.-China relations under the Trump presidency.
So far, the change has been underwhelming.
The subject is complicated by the existence of a large gap between the rhetoric of Trump — a political novice — and key members of his administration, such as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who have articulated positions on China much more conventional than the president. But how has the president himself impacted U.S.-China relations in his first 100 days in office?
Here are five stories to keep in mind, arranged roughly in chronological order. In all of them so far, there is every indication that Trump is heading toward a much more conventional approach — likely strongly influenced by advice from Mattis and Tillerson, among others — on China than anticipated prior to his taking office.
The Taiwan issue
- Before he formally took office, Trump caused a small foreign policy crisis on December 2, 2016, when he accepted a call from Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen. The call threatened to break a core principle upon which relations between Washington and Beijing are based, called the “one-China policy.”
- Trump chose to escalate rather than deescalate the tension for over two months, until, as president, he spoke with Chinese President Xi Jinping on February 10 and flip-flopped, reaffirming the one-China policy.
- On April 28, his 99th day in office, Trump further rebuked Taiwan by praising President Xi and saying he would like “to speak to him first” before contacting Taiwan again.
Xi and Trump: The personal relationship
- After the initial bombshell call with Taiwan, and combined with the many disparaging remarks Trump had made about China on the campaign trail, observers widely expected the first meeting of the American and Chinese presidents to be difficult. Trump himself confirmed this expectation as he tweeted on March 30, “The meeting next week with China will be a very difficult one in that we can no longer have massive trade deficits…and job losses. American companies must be prepared to look at other alternatives.”
- The visit of Xi Jinping to Mar-a-Lago on April 6, however, went largely without awkward moments, and Trump has since repeatedly claimed to have developed a “friendship” with the Chinese president. Two more recent phone calls between Trump and Xi, on April 12 and April 24, appeared to have been conducted professionally. In other words, the personal relations between the bombastic American and the measured Chinese leader have also appeared to become much more conventional than widely anticipated.
- The most specific promise Trump made concerning China on the campaign trail was to label the country a currency manipulator “on day one” of his administration. The promise was a regular feature of Trump’s stump speech, and put into writing in a 2015 Wall Street Journal op-ed (paywall) by Trump as candidate. The promise also was featured in an October 2016 campaign document titled “Donald Trump’s Contract with the American Voter,” though there it was made in the context of a “100-day action plan,” rather than a strict “day one” time frame.
- It didn’t happen. Day one went by without a peep from Trump on China, and not even 100 days went by before Trump flip-flopped and declared that the Chinese are “not currency manipulators” on April 12 in an interview (paywall) with the Wall Street Journal. This, like with Taiwan, is a return to the status quo U.S. policy on China.
- Trump then connected currency issues to North Korea, which has become the primary focus of Trump in his communication with China. On April 16, he tweeted, “Why would I call China a currency manipulator when they are working with us on the North Korean problem? We will see what happens!”
- We still have yet to see what happens, but Trump’s oscillation between pushing China to do more on North Korea, and admitting that it’s not an easy problem to solve, is entirely normal practice for an American administration. China’s announcement that it was denying coal shipments from North Korea was “in line with U.N. economic sanctions that China voted for last year” before Trump assumed the presidency, Politifact stated.
- Trump’s love of provocative rhetoric, and the increasingly imminent threat of a North Korea capable of reaching the mainland U.S. with a nuclear missile, appear to be the primary drivers of difference between this and previous administrations. These are policy differences of degree, rather than type.
- The American administration suffered a major communications misstep when Trump declared “We are sending an armada, very powerful,” to North Korea on April 10, but the military maneuver never happened as described. The threat of military action against North Korea, however, is an entirely routine bluff from the United States.
All other major issues deferred
- The other primary Trump-China story of the first 100 days is just how many major issues have been deferred, and how Trump’s twitter feed has largely cooled off and become less critical of China.
- On trade and U.S. business in China: Chinese and American officials agreed at Mar-a-Lago to kick off a “100-day” period of negotiation, kicking the can down the road and raising expectations that a relatively moderate outcome would be reached.
- On the South and East China Seas: Trump suddenly became muted once assuming office. Mattis and Tillerson had previously made statements opposing China’s claims in these ocean areas, though no concrete action has been taken on this issue by the Trump administration in the first 100 days.
- On human rights: Trump has never spoken much about this issue, though Susan Thornton, acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs at the U.S. State Department, confirmed in an interview on the Sinica Podcast that the U.S. plans to continue raising it through regular diplomatic channels. She also confirmed that Trump had brought up human rights at Mar-a-Lago, continuing normal practice for American presidents dealing with China (listen starting at the 48-minute mark).
- All told, China’s government and state media have apparently adopted a general policy of cozying up to Trump, figuring that if they treat him well, he’ll treat them well. In other words, the Chinese government’s position on Trump so far confirms the perception that this American administration is flexible on China policy, and that with patience and small concessions from China, Trump is unlikely to implement radical change in U.S.-China relations.