Spearhead Analysis – 23.01.2017
By Shirin Naseer
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research
After Trump’s presidential victory US-China relations plunged into an unprecedented level of uncertainty. Trump frequently hit out at China during his campaigning. Tension has since then been gradually building up around bilateral relations.
Trump’s threats throughout his campaign to raise import taxes on Chinese goods in the US, the congratulatory phone call from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen to Trump and later his blatant threats to the long-standing one China policy despite the full knowledge that China itself does not even recognize the existence of Taiwan’s democratic government- are only some of the issues that have led to China’s contentious attitude towards Trump.
Yet, the Chinese government’s official position has remained the same: Trump will be given the benefit of the doubt. China expects Trump to understand that the stakes are high and that there is a crucial need for China and the United States to have a stable and cooperative relationship in the current political order.
Under the Obama administration the slew of complex issues facing the US-China relationship and any resulting anxieties were often relaxed with a swift movement towards opening up talks on climate change—an issue on which both countries agreed, irrespective of the extent of their disagreements in other areas.
With Trump now taking the Oval office, the US-China relationship is going to be in a bit of a quandary.
So far it is clear that given President Trump’s blatant indifference towards climate change, whenever matters get dicey the US can no longer look to the same point of cooperation to align US-Chinese interests and distract attention from deteriorating relations. This has only elevated the risks concerning the future of US-China relations.
Shortly after President Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States, the White House website received an update with which all pages related to climate change and clean energy disappeared. During his campaign, Trump called climate change a “hoax” created by the Chinese government to make manufacturers in the US become less competitive with their Chinese counterparts. Hence, the purge of all references to global warming from the official website was not wholly unexpected.
In any case, climate change is no longer listed as a “Top Issue”. A new page titled, “An America First Energy Policy Plan” has however appeared. This plan asserts that Trump and his new hires will move to eliminate climate regulations and boost coal, oil, and gas production. The plan also reads: “President Trump is committed to eliminating harmful and unnecessary policies such as the Climate Action Plan”.
Trump’s stance remains as it was during his campaign trail: skeptical and dismissive of climate change. While Trump’s position can’t be expected to undergo any drastic changes anytime soon, his position can, at best, be managed. At this point, anything that facilitates the recognition of a mutual interest would be constructive.
US and China are the world’s two largest economies and happen to be the generators of half of the entire world’s economic growth. They also share a common goal: stimulating growth and strengthening energy security through infrastructure development.
A new way to bring US and China out of troubled waters when the need arises could be for the two to unite under a commitment to further infrastructure development. The fundamental point is to realize that a constructive working relationship with China offers bilateral and multilateral benefits to the US–a tense relationship will do the opposite.
Trump intends to significantly boost America’s national infrastructure. President Xi also shares a similar commitment to invest in infrastructure development. Presently, China’s foreign policy goals largely serve President Xi’s interest in securing the multi-trillion dollar infrastructure development plan called One Belt One Road (OBOR) which aims to connect China and Europe in a web of highways, high-speed rail, pipelines, ports, energy terminals and fiber optic lines. Trump sees himself as one of the best builders in America. His fascination with large-scale construction projects is well-known. Trump may develop an interest in investing in the OBOR project.
A common interest in infrastructure development could be that point of connect that the US-China relation lacks and requires in order to guarantee some level of stability.
In committing to work towards infrastructure development together, US and China can fill in the space created in the absence of a topic of commonality. The US should work towards pursuing a strategy that promotes engagement and actively seeks a common ground for bilateral relations to progress amid the challenges that await US and China in future.