The Trump administration has changed its previous stance on ‘One China.’ This is pretty evident from various statements issued by Trump and his team and the positive response these statements have received from China. Moving away from advocating Taiwan’s ‘independence’ (read: Trump conversing directly with Taiwan’s leadership), Trump administration’s officials have now been reported to have shown a great deal of respect to ‘One China’, signaling the coming of a new era of co-operation between both countries. Sounds quite contradictory to what Trump had advocated during his election campaign! The campaign is over and so is much of the rhetoric that accompanied it. The changed stance is yet another instance when rhetoric meets institutional realities and undergoes a fundamental transformation. Last week’s conversation between the presidents of both countries is a clear contrast to the expectation of Trump pursuing a radical and aggressive policy towards Beijing by reviewing the One China policy. This hasn’t happened, yet a lot more is to come and this is not necessarily confrontation.
As a matter of fact, ground work for Trump-Xi conversation had already been laid before the conversation took place. One interesting signal came in the form of toning down of rhetoric on South China Sea by Rex Tillerson. While Tillerson had previously made aggressive remarks regarding China during the hearings in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and appeared to advocate a blockade of Beijing’s artificial islands in the South China Sea, the new policy he has outlined in his written response to the questions posed by a member of the US Foreign Relations Committee suggest not blockade or use of dramatic military moves but co-operation between the US and its allies to limit China’s access to the sea.
The policy outlined in these leaked responses bodes perfectly well with the conversation Trump had with his Chinese counterpart. Unsurprisingly therefore, the White House readout says, “President Trump agreed, at the request of President Xi, to honour our “one China” policy.” In the Chinese account, Xi told Trump during the phone conversation that he “appreciated” the latter “for stressing that the US government adheres to the one-China policy.”
This conversation in turn had followed a letter written by Trump to Xi, emphasising a “constructive relationship” between the US and China, two days before the phone call.
The U-turn that the Trump administration has now taken vis-à-vis China, ‘One China’ policy and South China Sea point to a massive re-think that they seem to have done after assuming office. Clearly, a load of doomsday predictions of a war between US and China falls by the wayside. To be sure, US Defense Secretary James Mattis during his visit to Japan last week underscored that solution to the South China Sea has to be found on the diplomatic track and he did not “see any need for dramatic military moves at all.”
China’s response to this toning down of policy has been equally positive and signifies a potential continuation of the policy it has been following towards the United States for last few years. Premised as it was on an un-conditional acceptance of and adherence to ‘One China’ and respecting China’s interests in other areas such as South and East China seas, Trump-Xi conversation marks China’s diplomatic victory and underscores the importance of continuing through a non-confrontation mode.
At the same time, the US understands the importance of keeping the ‘China threat’ alive in the region. Since TPP is now officially dead and the “pivot to Asia” is in doldrums, the US cannot strategically afford to stay militarily aloof in the region or abandon it to be completely dominated by China.
This is clearly evident from the reading of the press conference Trump had after meeting with Japan’s premier. While underscoring the US’ commitment to the region, Trump went on to reassure Japan and other Asia-Pacific nations that he wouldn’t unravel decades of American foreign policy by scaling back the US military presence in region. This statement has come at a time when the US allies, who were already in the process of re-thinking their erstwhile relations with the US in the wake of the demise of TPP, were harbouring fears that Trump would pull the US military out of the region after he had so many times questioned the buildup and suggested during his campaign that countries like Japan and South Korea may need to acquire nuclear weapons and build their own defences.
This re-assurance, however, may not translate into massive military build-up or confrontation (Tread: Tillerson’s response to questions). What this means, in terms of policy towards the region, is that the Trump administration is planning to, or it already has, separately deal with its allies such as Japan and South Korea from China—a policy that leaves Washington with ample space to freely pursue independent tracks at the bilateral level leading to Beijing and Japan, and at the same time keep its alliances alive with a view to optimally take care of US interests and concern—interests which don’t fall in line with those of China in the region.
Significantly, the US-Japan joint statement noted that Trump has conclusively abandoned Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, and is seeking a bilateral trade framework between US and Japan—something that China would ideally have no major issue with. Perusal of bi-lateral track also means that there is now no counterpoint to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership China has been promoting.
Xi’s emphasis on perusal of constructive relations that cater to the interests of both the US and China also reinforce the view that China is perhaps not looking to force the US out of Asia and the Pacific. This being the most likely case, the ‘pivot to Asia’ and ‘containment’ of China have also died, at least for now. Nothing could have indicated the emergence of the new era of co-operation than a merely perfunctory call, lacking emphasis and vigour, made in the US-Japan statement on countries concerned in the region to avoid actions that escalate into tension.
All this indicates that the Trump administration is not looking for confrontation and military build-up in the region. Although TPP is dead, emphasis on bi-lateral engagement with allies does mean that the US is not going to leave the region economically and militarily. It will stay in the region but heightened confrontation, the kind of which Ronald Reagan had once sought with the former Soviet Union, seems inconceivable, at least for now. The U-turn promises co-operation and tends to take the US- China relations considerably beyond regional disputes.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.