Three Contradictions in Trump’s China Policy (Thus Far)

Professor Alastair Iain Johnston explains three paradoxes at the center of the new Trump administration’s approach to China and Taiwan, as part of the Fairbank Center’s new blog series on Trump and Asia.

Xi Jinping steps out from behind the PRC flag, image: Reuters

It is probably too early to tell how the details of Donald Trump’s China policy will evolve. Very few of the China-related policy positions in the new administration have been filled. A wide range of individuals with varying policy preferences claim to be his advisers or claim to interact with his transition team. So predicting his China policy is fraught with uncertainty (as, apparently, Trump prefers).

But thus far, Trump’s own statements and tweets, and comments from those who are assumed to have some inside information suggest at least three contradictions or tensions in his thinking about China.

1. Does Leverage Over China Require Sacrificing Taiwan?

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen speaks with President-elect Donald Trump on the phone, December 2, 2016. Image: AP

Trump and some of his advisers have suggested that improved relations with Taiwan (including reconsidering the U.S. “One China” policy) could be used as leverage to get China to back down on everything from its military activities in the South China Sea to its trade policies.

However, China will have no incentive to play nice on maritime disputes or trade if Trump can’t also reassure Beijing that he would dial back relations with Taiwan if China does moderate its behavior. That is, if Trump goes ahead and improves relations with Taiwan regardless of what China does on the South China Sea or on trade, then Beijing has no incentive to change its behavior. Thus, the logic of coercive diplomacy requires that, in addition to threats, Trump needs to assure China that its “good behavior” will be rewarded.

But if Trump DOES try to credibly reassure China that he would indeed dial back relations with Taiwan in return for “good behavior”, then what is Trump telling the Taiwanese? It would seem that in Trump’s view, Taiwan’s future is a legitimate pawn in his transactional approach to relations with China. But if Trump does not intend to use Taiwan so strategically, then he is unlikely to generate the leverage over China that he needs and wants.

2. Is Taiwan Costly to China or Not?

Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea, image: Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative

Some Trump advisers argue that changing or threatening to change the relationship with Taiwan will dramatically raise the costs to China for its military activities in the South China Sea. This is the same thing as saying that because China is so sensitive about the Taiwan issue it will be willing change its South China Sea policies because it places a higher value on its vision of the status quo with Taiwan.

But other Trump advisers argue that the U.S. can raise the level of official interaction with Taiwan because ultimately China will adjust. Indeed, they suggest that nothing dramatic will actually change in U.S.-Taiwan relations other than improved communications. Moreover, they note, there are lots of precedents for changing protocols and procedures in relations with Taiwan anyway. China will get used to it. This is the same as saying that China doesn’t value its vision of the status quo with Taiwan very much because it is will ultimately accept changes in the US-Taiwan relationship.

So, which is it? Do the Chinese so value their vision of the current status quo on the Taiwan issue that any improvement in the U.S.-Taiwan relationship gives the U.S. leverage over China on important issues like the South China Sea? Or do the Chinese essentially discount the value of the status quo on Taiwan such that they won’t react much if the US changes it?

2. Is Extolling Unpredictability Self-Defeating?

Shrug Image: AP

Some Trump advisers have suggested that Trump’s successively provocative and/or inconsistent statements on China reflect a shrewd strategy of unpredictability. If you keep the adversary from knowing your intentions and bottom lines, then this uncertainty will induce caution in the other side and cause the other side to reveal its strategy first.

This is actually an argument that the Chinese military makes against transparency and in favor of deceiving the enemy. Deception and unpredictability, in this view, enhance deterrence, and have operational advantages when deterrence fails. Trump appears to share this view. He has pointed out he likes being unpredictable in negotiations. Indeed, some observers have suggested he is influenced by the Nixonian “madman theory” of bargaining — appearing crazy and unpredictable will lead the opponent to make concessions now rather than wait for some more dangerous future.

Deception and unpredictability may work in zero-sum conflicts such as warfare. But they don’t work so well when negotiating in relationships that also have major cooperative elements (e.g. U.S.-China cooperation on trade, investment, climate change, counter-terrorism, and counter-proliferation). If you are unpredictable, potential partners will likely see you as unreliable; they will conclude that you won’t keep your agreements and promises. Once you have a reputation for unreliability, why would anyone want to cooperate with you in the future?

In short, deliberate unpredictability as a strategy is inconsistent with maintaining productive relationships in business and in diplomacy. It is also antithetical to crisis management where the credible communication of restraint is essential for de-escalation.

Finally, if you truly believe in the efficacy of the madman theory, you shouldn’t advertise that you believe in the madman theory. If you do, you reveal you are not a madman, and the strategy then loses its effectiveness.

This blog post is part of the Fairbank Center’s new “Trump and Asia” series, which analyses the changing relationships between the U.S., China, and East Asia in the new administration. Read more here on our blog.

To read more by Professor Alastair Iain Johnston, check out his blog post for Harvard’s Weatherhead Center on The World That Awaits President-Elect Trump.