OPINIONS Sino-US ties can avoid Thucydides Trap


Sino-US ties can avoid Thucydides Trap

Global Times

14:19, November 11, 2017


Photo: VCG

US President Donald Trump's erratic statecraft, his incomplete working team and wavering China policy make it difficult to take a holistic view of his foreign policy.
The Trump administration's domestic policy is relatively clear, but its foreign policy is considerably ambiguous. So far, the US government has not yet issued any official document to detail its diplomatic strategy or national security policy. But the Trump administration's foreign strategy shows intent and characteristics.
First, Trump's foreign policy not only has to give way to domestic affairs, but also needs to regard American interests as the first priority. If Trump wants to get re-elected, he needs to pay more attention to domestic affairs during a certain period.
Second, Trump values cost-effectiveness. He will slash the cost involved in international affairs as much as possible to ease the burden on the exchequer. 
Third, the Trump administration prefers bilateral cooperation to multilateralism, which he believes may restrict the US. 
In addition, Trump emphasizes pragmatic trading and downplays value-oriented diplomacy and human rights issues. One can be sure that the share of human rights issues in Trump's diplomatic strategy will be the lowest in recent decades. As Trump's personal values and religious beliefs are hard to fathom, and the US human rights situation is unfavorable, Trump is unlikely to highlight value-oriented diplomacy. 
On the other hand, Western democracy, including the US, has seen a lot of problems in recent years. Besides, Trump's declining approval ratings since he assumed office, compounded by problems in American race relations, violent crimes, gun control etc, leave him on shaky ground to effectively implement human rights diplomacy during his tenure.
At last, Trump is likely to undertake overseas military adventures. He ordered the US military to launch 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles against Syria in April at the same time when he met with Chinese President Xi Jinping at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. He launched the attack reportedly after being touched by photos of Syria towns suffering a gas attack and the sight of dead babies. 
In other words, Trump's decision to act militarily may just be impulsive. He appoints former military officials for important positions in his national security team and values those who obey orders and act decisively, which may foreshadow future military adventures.
In recent years, Sino-US relations have entered a "new normal" with three main characteristics:
First, Sino-US cooperation and competition gain simultaneous strength with domestic affairs in both countries influencing diplomatic relations. 
Second, media outlets and public pay more attention to Sino-US strategic rivalry rather than the positive side of bilateral ties. This milieu largely offsets the practical benefits of Sino-US cooperation and makes it more difficult to arrive at certain strategic conclusions.
Third, the strategic mindsets of the two powers contrast. The US, at least for now, does not see China as the biggest security threat, while in view of the Chinese, the US is the biggest strategic threat. So, it is easy to imagine that the US has also seen China as the greatest strategic threat. The rise of China is one of the challenges the US faces, but the concern is not as imminent as other international crises countenanced by Washington.
This "new normal" that Sino-US relations have entered is not a breaking point, it rather constitutes the background of the Trump administration's China policy.
The US strategy toward China has a tendency of becoming fragmented and concrete during Trump's time in office, which will be a new test for Beijing. The previous US administrations always tried to find a strategic position in Sino-US relations. But Trump's officials made it clear they will steer clear of any such propensity. 
The US has not yet detailed its China policy, but the Trump administration did have a policy toward Beijing. The US holds a fragmented and concrete China policy, which US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson calls 'result-oriented'. The fragmentation is a result of the administration's rhetoric and moves on China that contradict each other. 
The biggest problem affecting Sino-US relations is not economic and trade ties, but the North Korean nuclear issue. 
The Trump administration believes that China can impose sanctions like cutting off fuel supply to North Korea to force it to change its policy. 
However, China's policy on North Korea is based on certain principles and considerations, and won't cater to US expectations. Under the current circumstances, the possibility of US' unilateral military action against North Korea will increase. It's hard to predict when and how the US will "punish" North Korea, nevertheless,  it is not realistic to expect that the Trump administration would tolerate North Korea to make the cake of nuclear weapons bigger.
Compared with the North Korean nuclear issue, the importance of economic and trade relations cannot be underestimated. Trade won't lead to deterioration in Sino-US relations because economic ties between the two powers are highly interdependent. Economic and trade issues intertwine with North Korean nuclear issue. 
Moreover, the Trump government attaches great importance to the issue of immigration. Many US administrative departments are concerned with illegal Chinese immigrants. 
US' technological innovation is a force to reckon with in the world. The powerful civil society in the US contributes to stability in the country. The US economy is performing better. Hence, it's not correct to say the US is on decline, but it is true the country has encountered one of the most serious political crises since it was founded.
To sum up, the North Korean nuclear issue will become the key factor affecting Sino-US relations. China needs to pay more attention to the issue and strengthen the crisis prevention and control mechanism. Due to diverging national interests and ideologies between the two powers, the development of their relations will face a bumpy road with mutual strategic suspicion, but they can avoid the Thucydides Trap-a serious long-term strategic confrontation.

What's more, the attitudes of Trump, his administration, and the US as a whole toward China are not the same concept. Only by making preparations for these levels can China better cope with the changes in Sino-US relations.

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