Mon, Dec 31, 2018 - Page 6 News List

Stephen M. Young On Taiwan: Where are US-China relations heading? A year end review

Despite President Donald Trump’s apparent bromance with strongman Chinese leader Xi Jinping (習近平), there are ominous thunderclouds on the horizon for US-China relations as 2018 draws to a close. Let’s start with a bit of background.

President Xi astutely assessed incoming American President Trump’s fondness for flattery early on, arranging first a phone call, then a meeting at the President’s casino down in Florida to woo the new US leader. There was the small matter of Trump’s accepting a congratulatory call from Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) to overcome, but Mr. Xi, in the midst of tightening his authoritarian rule over China, did a good job of schmoozing up to Mr. Trump. They have met several times since, and have spoken on the phone often as well.

But like America and the rest of the world, Mr. Xi has discovered the mercurial and unpredictable nature of the man currently occupying the White House. Xi was no doubt surprised by Trump’s decision to levy significant tariffs on Chinese imports into the United States, part of the current administration’s 1930s style approach to global trade. We all remember where that led. But I digress.

Give Mr. Xi credit. He has concealed any displeasure he might harbor toward his American counterpart, in the interest of blunting Trump’s protectionist instincts as they relate to bilateral trade. At their face-to-face meetings, Xi has been hospitable and flattering, as far as we can tell from public accounts of these sessions.

It doesn’t appear thus far to have yielded tangible results, in the sense that the Trumpian march toward sharply higher tariffs seems to be continuing. Yet when the two men sit down together, the atmospherics belie the apparent tensions in the bilateral relationship. In this regard, Mr. Xi seems to have taken a page out of Japanese leader Abe’s approach, which has been to flatter and accommodate the rather vain American President, even in the face of substantive differences.

The influence of National Security Advisor John Bolton, a known hawk on China, seems to be having some impact on the administration’s recent approach. Washington has never acceded to Beijing’s expansive territorial claims, particularly in the South China Sea. The more forceful assertion of US views on China’s claims has taken on a decidedly military nature, with more regular sea and air sorties through the region, including well-publicized encroachments into the territorial claims of certain islands in the area by American warships. This has also played out, to a lesser extent, in the north, where American support for Japan over its quarrel with China concerning the Senkaku Islands has been solid and visible.

It is important for regional security that this rivalry be managed within certain parameters. As a Soviet expert in the State Department during the waning years of the Cold War, I was a party to bilateral US-Soviet negotiations aimed at regularizing procedures when our two militaries found themselves in close contact. Building on the earlier Incidents at Sea Agreement between Washington and Moscow, our delegation of civilian and military experts hammered out something called the Dangerous Military Activities Agreement in 1989, which created new lines of communication and rules of engagement on land and in the air, to go along with the earlier naval accord. This agreement was quickly eclipsed by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. But it suggests patterns that might be useful in managing Sino-American military tensions today.

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