US-China ties are on shaky ground

By Parris Chang 張旭成  / 

Wed, Mar 07, 2018 - Page 8

Despite attempts by the Chinese ambassador to the US to exert pressure on US senators not to approve the Taiwan Travel Act, the US Senate followed the US House of Representatives by unanimously passing the bill.

Decisionmakers in Beijing might have been misled by Taiwanese academics and sections of the media which support China into believing that a Taiwan-friendly bill would not pass the US Congress. Beijing might also be placing its hopes on US President Donald Trump doing it a favor, since the bill still requires his signature before it can become law.

However, this is wishful thinking on Beijing’s part and China’s leadership is setting itself up for a big disappointment.

The Trump administration’s national security team has issued numerous criticisms of former US presidents Barack Obama’s, George W. Bush’s and Bill Clinton’s China policies, which they view as having been too eager to indulge Beijing.

They have also made it clear that this administration would not continue such policies, but instead bring new ideas to the table which would incorporate Trump’s “America First” principles.

The most obvious example of this is when on Dec. 18 last year Trump announced a National Security Strategy aimed squarely at China. The report defined China as the US’ main security threat and an enemy, which through “economic incursion,” and expanding power and influence is challenging the US’ traditional leadership role, not just in the Asia-Pacific region, but globally, in a bid to supplant the US as the world’s pre-eminent power.

The report also emphasized US security guarantees to Taiwan.

Washington is taking immediate action by implementing an Asia-Pacific strategy aimed at forming an alliance of nations to contain China in a modern day version of the vertical alliance strategy of China’s Warring States period.

Under the strategy, the US, Japan, India and Australia would join forces to surround and contain the rising power and dominance of China. This means that Taiwan would, once again, become a valued strategic partner of the US.

The Trump administration has already initiated its so-called Section 301 investigation, which is looking into imposing heavy tariffs on Chinese imports such as photovoltaic modules and industrial washing machines. The investigation is also exploring introducing more stringent criteria and a stricter review processes for acquisitions of US businesses by Chinese companies, but it might risk setting off a global trade war.

Trump has reason to be dissatisfied with Beijing. During several face-to-face meetings and telephone calls with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), Trump has pressed Xi to support international efforts to reign in Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions and eliminate the US’ trade deficit.

Xi’s commitment to dealing with these issues has always been half-hearted. He simply paid lip service to Trump’s requests to string him along.

Trump has now run out of patience and decided to overturn the US-China relationship.

Xi now realizes he completely misjudged the situation and is scrambling to put out the flames. At the beginning of last month, Xi dispatched Chinese State Counselor Yang Jiechi (楊潔篪) to Washington for bilateral talks to negotiate with his counterpart, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Yang was to raise an official objection to the US-Taiwan relationship and register China’s disapproval in the hope of achieving concessions; Beijing’s emissary returned home empty-handed.

Xi and Wang Qishan (王岐山) — a close ally of Xi’s who is to become Chinese vice president — have both met with US Ambassador to China Terry Branstad, a close ally of Trump, hoping to reverse US hostility toward China.

Xi has also sent Chinese Communist Party member and soon-to-be vice-premier Liu He (劉鶴) to Washington to try to save the US-China relationship and alleviate the threat of a US-China trade war.

Beijing has issued 31 “measures to benefit the people” in an attempt to lure Taiwanese to China, which is motivated by the abject failure of China’s policy of “unification by force,” which has caused resentment among Taiwanese and sparked a backlash from Washington.

In response, the US Congress has passed the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018 and the Taiwan Travel Act, which are designed to upgrade US-Taiwan defense cooperation and the US-Taiwan diplomatic relationship, and counter the Chinese military threat.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has displayed considerable political agility in facilitating North Korea’s participation in last month’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and is pushing for deeper reconciliation with the North. In doing so, Moon has completely excluded Beijing from its traditional role as a go-between.

The international community originally believed Beijing possessed significant influence over Pyongyang, but China has been marginalized. It is another setback for the diplomacy of a nation that aspires to be a great power.

Parris Chang is a former deputy secretary-general of the National Security Council.

Translated by Edward Jones