US, China and the possibility of war

Spearhead Special Report – 19.12.2017

By Shirin Naseer
Senior Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

Trump’s Asia tour last month ignited a protocol race between competitors Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines and China. The Chinese media thoroughly followed details of the US President’s Japan and South Korea visits. Both countries went to great lengths to ensure US President Donald Trump and his wife Melania Trump felt welcomed. Aside from the elaborate catering and entertainment arrangements, the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe presented a custom-made cap with “Donald & Shinzo, Make Alliance Even Greater” embroidered in gold, to Trump as a gift. The Chinese media watched closely as Prime Minister Abe also played nine holes of golf with the American President, and showered Trump with numerous compliments during the course of his stay.

Upon observing these developments, China did not hold back.

Days before Trump’s three-day stay in Beijing the Chinese foreign ministry announced China will be giving Trump a “state visit plus” reception. Several US think tanks have been debating the possibility of war between the US and an expanding China. China has however repeatedly made its intentions clear: it does not want tension in its relationship with the US. Trump’s visit to China and China’s behavior during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summits has in many ways confirmed China’s stance– friction with the United States is in no way within Chinese interests.

Beijing, in making sure Trump receives a grand-enough welcome during his stay, broke tradition. Trump became the first foreign leader who has dined in the Forbidden City since the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Trump was all praises about the private dinner, calling it “beyond” terrific. Trump repeatedly complimented China on Twitter as well, replacing his Twitter background image twice with photos including Xi and his wife Peng Liyuan.  

Several news outlets highlighted the move away from protocol and Beijing’s notable preparedness towards charming the American President. Trump and his wife Melania received the highest-level treatment. In fact, Melania was so taken with the exceptional welcome that she extended her trip and stayed back in Beijing as President Trump left to complete the rest of his tour. She also updated her Twitter account frequently with pictures shot in Beijing. The Great Wall and the Beijing zoo were closed to the public while Melania enjoyed private moments at two of one of the most popular tourist attractions in China. 

This show of enthusiasm from the Chinese side has sent a clear message to observers: friction with the US is not within the ambit of Chinese interests. For China, as President Xi also said during Trump’s visit, cooperation is the only way forward.

Apart from spending extravagantly on Trump’s grand welcome, China also checked Trump’s “make America great again” box by signing multi-billion dollar record-breaking economic deals worth $253.4 billion with the US. While the future of these economic contracts can be viewed with some skepticism, China’s intent to woo Trump and satisfy his political agenda during his trip was unquestionable.

Notably, China has adopted a similar approach towards its neighbors and even some US allies. During the recently concluded APEC summit held in Vietnam and ASEAN summit held in the Philippines, China stayed true to its word and looked for ways to further pragmatic cooperation in several of its bilateral relationships.  

Chinese President Xi Jinping in his keynote speech at the APEC summit assured Asia-Pacific countries that China will “stick to the path of peaceful development” and “promote the building of a new type of international relations based on mutual respect, fairness and justice, and win-win cooperation.”

According to reports, the China-Philippines relationship has significantly thawed overtime. Li became the first Chinese premier in ten years to visit the Philippines after his meeting from November 15 to 16 with the Philippines leader, following the conclusion of the ASEAN summit in Manila. China agreed to resolve its differences with the Philippines over the South China Sea— an issue that has severely undermined mutual relations in the past. “Both sides affirm that contentious maritime issues are not the sum total of the Philippines-China bilateral relationship,” the statement issued during the summit said. 

With Vietnam too China issued a joint statement agreeing to enhance cooperation on economy and trade, industrial capacity, investment, infrastructure, and finance.

On November 11, President Xi met with the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of the APEC leaders’ meeting, held in Vietnam. China’s willingness to improve ties with Japan was made exceedingly clear by the Chinese president during this meeting.

Regarding the North Korean crisis, which is one of the most critical issues in the China-US relationship, President Xi said China will be sending a special envoy to North Korea– a move also appreciated by Trump on Twitter . Xi further emphasized China’s bottom line for the North Korean issue is “no war, no crisis, no nuclearization.”

With the latest developments in the relationship it is fairly obvious that China went all out to please Trump. Interestingly, Douglas Brinkley (professor of history at Rice University) once said, “The world of high-stakes international diplomacy can be rough and tumble, but it’s more often than not a procession of suits and summits, protocol sessions, and photo ops.” With its “state visit plus” reception China has made its intentions clear; war with the US is not in the interest of China or its ruling party, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) which is known to have safeguarding national stability as one of its main and most significant objectives. 

Notwithstanding all these positive vibes the newly announced US National Security Strategy lists China as a threat along with Russia, Iran, North Korea and Jihadists. China also has concerns with militants operating from any country as was clear from the BRICs Summit statement earlier in the year. More recently China has voiced concerns on political stability in Pakistan in the context of CPEC. China has consistently advised Pakistan to work for good bilateral relations with its neighbors regardless of unresolved issues. China will compete with the US but will avoid confrontation that could lead to conflict. The US too while working diplomatically and militarily to contain China is unlikely to create a conflict situation in spite of President Trump’s unpredictability.