By saying that “… America respects the right of all nations to chart their own path. My job is not to represent the world. My job is to represent the United States of America…” in his first Joint Address to the Congress [Note 1], President Donald Trump not just elaborates his ‘America First’ doctrine but also boldly motion a paradigm change in the International Relations, namely, from the century-long ‘West vs Rest’ theme to a ‘United States vs Others’ notion. Assuming Trump is going to materialize his promises, Beijing would benefit from adapting to this change.
The Joint Address, which is well-structured, categorical and unequivocal, covers both domestic governance and foreign policy orientation. What is common among all topics is ‘differentiation’.
Internally, Trump differentiates the people residing in the United States as well-behaved jobholders vs criminals and illegal “lower-skilled” immigrants, tax-burdened entrepreneurs vs squandering and over-regulating agencies, and so on.
Externally, Trump differentiates the Americans from other peoples as, firstly, free and fair American traders vs foreign job-stealing exporters and tariff-collectors, secondly, the U.S. being the world peace keeper vs the free-riders of peace (some are U.S. allies), and, finally and most importantly, Trump himself vs all other national path finders.
Trump’s rhetoric on illustrating his perception of international relations sounds like a deviation from the United States’ post-World War II grand strategy — liberal internationalism. In order to fulfill this strategy of transforming all countries into the West’s mode, as highlighted again by Jennifer Lind in her latest Foreign Affairs article, “Washington sought to pull countries into its orbit, regardless of whether they accepted its values …Washington sought to create a liberal order that it itself led” [Note 2].
But right now, Trump does not mention ‘human rights’, ‘democratization’, ‘liberalism’ or alike in his foreign policy related rhetoric. He believes his job is not to represent (or save?) the world anymore. Instead, Trump chooses to let other nations go and proclaims that he respects other nations’ right to “chart their own path.” Incidentally, it is on the same wavelength with the Chinese President Xi Jinping’s emphasis that “China must pursue its own path of development” in his opening address at the G20 Summit in Sep 2016 [Note 3].
Trump is correct to say that, probably for Americans’ livelihood as well as lucrative business in general, “America is better off when there is less conflict, not more … We want peace, wherever peace can be found.” [Note 1] Do not be confused by the jingoistic pundits, there is no territorial fight between the U.S. and China at all.
The U.S. aircraft carriers may seek for freedom of navigation through the South China Sea but Washington is not going to claim sovereignty over any single rock there. In the East China Sea, unless both Beijing and Tokyo insanely engage into a combat, say, for landing on an island in dispute, Trump is in no position to convince the general public that he has to risk American lives for controlling several tiny remote islands where there is no human habitat.
In 2012, when Beijing introduced the ‘air defense identification zone’, some bellicose analysts spread the fear of imminent wars. The fact that nothing wrong happened so far was not because the then President Obama was a peace lover, but because Washington had done the cost and benefit calculations — it would be easy to win a war but almost impossible to bear the consequences.
True, the Chinese navy is a new player in the sea. Tom Rowden, the commander of U.S. Naval Forces, said confidently in an interview that the Chinese gray ships are so weak that they “couldn’t fight their way out of a wet paper bag” [Note 4].
Nevertheless, both sides are wise and flexible enough to avoid unnecessary friction for which there are no political, economical, cultural and military justifications. The fact that “Beijing is softening its tone in South China Sea disputes, adapting to the American position — freedom of navigation” is such a sign — “As a major trading nation and the biggest country along the South China Sea, China attaches more importance than any other country to navigation freedom and security in the South China Sea,” Wang Guoqing, spokesman for China’s top consultative organization, said at a news conference in Beijing on March 2 [Note 5].
The only one issue that really matters is trade. However, China in the 2020-60s will be very different from itself in the 1980-2010s. For example, China’s exports to the U.S. in 2010 and 2015 respectively both made up around 18% of the total whereas the exports to other countries except Europe recorded remarkable progress (Asia up from 46.39% in 2010 to 50.15% in 2015, Africa from 3.80% to 4.77%, Europe down from 22.51% to 17.74% due to a number of economic crises) [Note 6]. The trend of steady growth inside the Asia-Europe-Africa trading zone is unstoppable.
The Belt and Road Initiative will transform, not just in form but also in substance, China’s trading dynamics ranging from product lines to market segmentation. Upon the completion of the inter-continental transportation infrastructure, economic recovery in Europe and modernization of the African civilizations in the coming decades, China’s reliance on the American consumers will be greatly reduced.
If making concessions to Trump’s short term requests on terms of trade could exchange for productive Sino-U.S. cooperation on other fronts, especially in the Middle East, to have the Silk Road project completed earlier rather than later, Beijing would be willing to strike sensible trade deals with Trump. And Trump’s plan to host President Xi at Mar-a-Lago in April [Note 7] is probably a starting point for cultivating such a new relationship.
Trump’s ‘America First’ policy may make America great again and perhaps make America remain the Number One in the 21st century. Yet, it does not mean that it would necessarily prevent China from becoming a moderately prosperous (Xiaokang) society. Each of them has its own path of development. So long as they do not interfere into each other’s route, both can succeed simultaneously.
By Mr. Keith K C Hui
The 4th Media
The White House, “Remarks by President Trump in Joint Address to Congress”, Feb 28, 2017.
Foreign Affairs March/April 2017 Issue, Jennifer Lind, “Asia’s Other Revisionist Power”, Feb 13, 2017.
G20 Summit 2016, “Keynote Speech by H.E. Xi, Jinping, President of the PRC, at the Opening Ceremony of B20 Summit: A New Starting Point for China’s Development A New Blueprint for Global Growth”, Sep 9, 2016.
Defense News, “Interview: Vice Adm. Tom Rowden, Commander, US Naval Forces”, Jan 8, 2017
Forbes, “Beijing is changing its tone in South China Sea Disputes”, Mar 6, 2017.
Xin Hua News, “China values South China Sea navigation freedom more than anyone: spokesperson”, March 2, 2017.
National Bureau of Statistics of China: Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation
(please see the attached excel file for data and calculation)
2017 Mar 14
Trump plans to host China’s Xi in April: media reports