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U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks during a joint press conference with China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing on March 18, 2017. (LINTAO ZHANG/AFP/Getty Images)
(LINTAO ZHANG/AFP/Getty Images)

The New Era in China-U.S. Relations Begins

Seth Cropsey

On March 13 the White House announced that President Donald Trump will host Chinese President Xi Jinping for a two-day summit in April at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. This could be helpful. Personal connections ought to be subordinate to national interests, but good relations at the personal level are more likely to help than hinder future cooperation between the two world leaders.

President Trump has already expressed some of his ideas about the U.S.-China relationship. As president-elect, Trump repeated his campaign accusation that China has manipulated its currency to take advantage of the United States. On Dec. 4, Trump tweeted: “Did China ask us if it was OK to devalue their currency (making it hard for our companies to compete), heavily tax our products going into their country (the U.S. doesn’t tax them) or build a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea? I don’t think so.”

Trump is understandably concerned about both the commercial relationship between the United States and China, and the security challenges that China’s actions in the region have raised over the past few years.

Opening moves

While he was president-elect, Trump accepted a congratulatory phone call from the President of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen. He also let it be known that the long-standing U.S. commitment to the so-called One China policy might be revisited. Such a re-evaluation could put an end to formal U.S. recognition that there is a single entity called China — the United States recognizes this diplomatic construct by maintaining an embassy and ambassador only in Beijing.

In response, the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s website answered that “[t]he One China principle, which is the political foundation of the China-U.S. relations, is non-negotiable.” Resolving this uncertainty, Presidents Trump and Xi spoke by phone shortly afterward, and the former assured the latter that the United States remained committed to the One China policy. Even if that policy is on the back burner for now, there are important issues between Washington and Beijing that a meeting could usefully address.

No single issue is more important to address than China’s maritime aggressiveness in the region, specifically in the South and East China seas. China’s single aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, together with five escorting vessels, navigated south of Taiwan in late December 2016 as the group entered the South China Sea.

In early March, the Chinese government news agency, Xinhua, reported that China’s premier, Li Keqiang, proposed strengthening its “maritime management” at the annual National People’s Congress. In the same address, Li called for increased military manpower in “offshore locations,” in all likelihood a reference to the artificial islands that Beijing has been building in the South China Sea. In conjunction with the same Congress, Wang Weimin, deputy chief of staff of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), told Xinhua that China is speeding up the development of a marine corps, a key military instrument for amphibious operations trained to overcome opposing forces and move well-armed ground forces from ship to shore.

China’s penetration of the airspace and the territorial waters of Japan’s Senkaku Islands, which Beijing claims and calls the Diaoyu Islands, in the East China Sea, has become more frequent in recent years and is now a fact of life in the region.

Chinese aggressiveness in both the South and East China seas threatens America’s allies and partners in the area. It also challenges a principle of U.S. foreign policy that dates back to America’s founding — namely, freedom of navigation in international waters. This is a necessity for a maritime nation like the United States that has traded with the world since before it declared independence from Great Britain.

The value of U.S. support to partners and allies

Trump campaigned on making America great again. He spoke repeatedly of diminished respect for the U.S. around the world and criticized then-President Barack Obama for weakness in the face of challenges from global competitors and adversaries. The Trump administration offered specific proposals for securing the nation’s borders and increasing the defense budget before it addressed Obamacare and tax reform. There is a lot that President Trump can discuss with President Xi with the aim of defending fundamental U.S. principles and protecting our friends and allies in Asia. A portion of this discussion is already underway.

The administration’s secretary of defense, James Mattis, visited Asia in February and said in Tokyo that Washington will continue to recognize Japan’s administration of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, and that the United States would defend the Senkakus if they were threatened. Earlier Mattis stopped in Seoul, where he said that the United States would deploy the THAAD anti-missile system to augment South Korea’s defense against a North Korean adversary that has increased the frequency of its missile tests in recent months.

Beijing has complained at length about the deployment, arguing that THAAD threatens China. President Trump could include in his discussions with Xi China’s unhelpful support of Pyongyang, which facilitates Kim Jong Un’s accelerating aggression in the region. There are plenty of other issues for the U.S. president to raise. They are united under a couple of common themes: the Chinese ambition to dominate East Asia, and Washington’s interest in preserving its alliances as a guarantor of democracy, security, and prosperity in the region.

Trump is not likely to persuade Xi to renounce China’s standing threat of force to resolve its disagreements with Taiwan. But clarity about U.S. willingness to stand by the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 would help Xi understand that the Trump administration will honor commitments to friends, partners, and allies around the world. The Taiwan Relations Act requires that the United States “make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain sufficient self-defense capabilities.”

Throughout the Obama administration, arms sales to Taiwan were few and far between. The Trump administration can change this: Regular and uninterrupted sale of appropriate defense technology to Taiwan would demonstrate clear resolve in discussions with Chinese leadership. Taiwan wants to purchase U.S. maritime patrol aircraft, mine-hunting ships, and combat helicopters; upgrade their missile defenses; purchase other missiles that would defend against ships, aircraft, and tanks; and buy aircraft with systems that provide early warning against attack. All these platforms and weapons are needed to help Taiwan defend itself against blockades, amphibious landings, and intermediate-range missile barrages launched from the mainland. A regular and frequent sale of these weapons would greatly improve Taiwan’s ability to deter attacks and it would increase the chance for peace and stability in cross-strait relations. The stronger Taiwan’s defenses are, the less interested China will be in challenging them.

On the diplomatic side, Xi would benefit from Trump’s reiteration of the “Six Assurances,” the U.S. Congress’s expression of American support of a peaceful resolution of differences between Taiwan and China. The assurances are backed by a reaffirmation of American defense assistance and respect for the existing understanding of Taiwan’s sovereignty. In the occasionally circuitous language of diplomacy, the Six Assurances establish that:

  • The U.S. has not agreed to set a date for ending arms sales to Taiwan;
  • The U.S. has not agreed to hold prior consultations with the People’s Republic of China on arms sales to Taiwan;
  • The U.S. will not play any mediation role between Taiwan and China;
  • The U.S. has not agreed to revise the Taiwan Relations Act;
  • The U.S. has not altered its position regarding sovereignty over Taiwan;
  • The U.S. will not exert pressure on Taiwan to negotiate with Beijing.

Trump’s personal affirmation of these assurances will tell Xi that the United States remains very much committed to Taiwan’s defense. It will also signal that Washington intends to stay engaged in East Asia and that the United States is a reliable alliance partner throughout the world. This may not please the Chinese leader. It will demonstrate that America is as good as its word. A superpower cannot be great at home without being great beyond its borders. President Trump pledged to make America great again. Standing firm on U.S. assurances to Taiwan will be a large step toward achieving this.

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