Donald Trump and China on dangerous collision course, say experts

Report says ties between the two nuclear-armed countries could deteriorate into an economic or military confrontation

A highly combustible cocktail of Donald Trump’s volatility and Xi Jinping’s increasingly aggressive and autocratic rule threatens to plunge already precarious US-China relations into a dangerous new era, some of the world’s leading China specialists say in a new report.

For the last 18 months a taskforce of prominent China experts, some of whom have dealt with Beijing for more than 50 years, has been formulating a series of recommendations on how the incoming White House should conduct relations with the world’s second largest economy.

The group’s report, which was handed to the White House on Sunday and will be published in Washington DC on Tuesday, says ties between the two nuclear-armed countries could rapidly deteriorate into an economic or even military confrontation if compromise on issues including trade, Taiwan and the South China Sea cannot be found.

Winston Lord, a former US ambassador to China and one of the report’s authors, told the Guardian: “I’m not totally despondent. I think we can get through this. But I think right now because of China’s policies and the uncertainties of Trump we are in the most uncertain situation certainly since the Tiananmen Square massacre.”

Orville Schell, a veteran China scholar who was one of taskforce’s chairs, said he was fearful about Trump’s apparent inclination to light a bonfire under decades of US policy towards China.

“We have a weird situation – and actually an incredibly dangerous one – because Trump is so unpredictable,” he said. “This is America’s Cultural Revolution. Just as Mao overthrew the party establishment and unleashed his red guards, Trump is going after the foreign policy establishment elite and he is unleashing his populism.”

Even before his shock election last November, Trump had indicated he would take a far harder line towards what he called “the bad China”.

“There are people who wish I wouldn’t refer to China as our enemy. But that’s exactly what they are,” Trump wrote in his bestselling campaign manifesto, Great Again: How To Fix Our Crippled America.

To China’s dismay, Trump – who has yet to speak with Xi Jinping since his inauguration – has done little to tone down such rhetoric since his election victory.

On television and Twitter he has accused Beijing of militarising the South China Sea, manipulating its currency and hampering attempts to rein in North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un.

Trump has also angered Beijing by hinting he could offer greater political recognition to Taiwan, a democratically ruled island that China claims as part of its own territory.

The taskforce’s 74-page report describes threats to overturn the US’s decades-old “One China” policy towards Taiwan – under which it does not dispute Beijing’s claim to the island – as “exceedingly dangerous” and possibly the most imminent danger to US-China relations and regional stability.

“In China’s universe if you don’t agree on ‘One China’ it’s like being in an evangelical church and having someone scream out: ‘There is no God!’ It’s blasphemy,” said Schell.

The report also warns of a gathering storm in the South China Sea, where Trump has accused Beijing of building “a massive fortress” in order to tighten its grip over the strategic waterway through which $4.5tn (£3.4tn) in trade passes each year.

It says China’s increasingly assertive actions in the region – which include placing sophisticated weapons systems on artificial islands – coupled with growing domestic nationalism risks setting the US and China on “a dangerous collision course”.

Last week Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, was reported to have claimed war between the US and China in the South China Sea was inevitable within five to 10 years.

Members of Trump’s team have criticised Barack Obama’s “weak” posture in the Asia-Pacific and called for an increased military presence there as part of a “peace through strength” strategy intended to push back against China.

However, the report cautions the White House against a “short-sighted” military buildup that it says would further inflame tensions.

“If China believes the United States is simply bent on containing it militarily, then Beijing would lose any motivation to moderate its conduct and might instead double down on preparations to fight and win in a showdown,” it says.

Schell said there was growing consensus among US academics, politicians and even businesspeople that since the 2008 financial crisis an emboldened China had been insufficiently challenged over protectionist trade practices, increasingly aggressive foreign policy moves and egregious human rights abuses. However, following Trump’s unexpected victory the report’s raison d’être changed.

“We had assumed the US government was in a steady, solid state and needed to adjust a little. And suddenly along comes Trump and threatens to rip up the playbook and, weirdly, China began to look a little bit as if it were more in the steady state,” Schell said.

Rather than simply a set of policy recommendations, then, the report became a direct appeal to Trump’s administration not to allow relations with Beijing to spiral out of control.

Lord, who was part of a secret 1971 mission to China with Henry Kissinger that paved the way for the reestablishment of diplomatic relations, said he was alarmed at how in just a few days Trump had “taken a sledgehammer” to longstanding US policy on Asia.

He described the president’s decision to abandon the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as “a geopolitical and economic disaster for the United States” that would damage Washington’s credibility in the region and boost China’s clout.

Trump’s “truly baffling and stupid phone call” with the Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, was also a blow. “Australia is one of our most faithful allies through history, and now in Asia, and if you are worried about the South China Sea … this is not the way to start,” Lord said.

Evan Medeiros, Obama’s top adviser on Asia and another of the report’s authors, said he felt “somewhere between uncertain and very worried” about Trump’s plans for US-China ties.

He cautioned the Republican against trying to challenge Beijing on such a wide range of issues. “You can’t do everything simultaneously. You can’t pick a fight with China on Taiwan, on trade, on North Korea and the South China Sea at the same time. It simply won’t work. You’ll just end up in a big fight with China that doesn’t produce anything for the United States.”

Crew members of China’s South Sea Fleet taking part in a drill in the Xisha Islands, or the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.
Crew members of China’s South Sea Fleet taking part in a drill in the Xisha Islands, or the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. Photograph: STR/AFP/Getty Images

The report’s authors identified some glimmers of hope. While several virulently anti-China figures had found their way into Trump’s administration, other more moderate voices were also appearing.

Schell said the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, had made some “reasonably reasonable” remarks about China, and he was also encouraged that Matt Pottinger, a former Marine and Wall Street Journal Beijing correspondent, was expected to become the White House’s chief adviser on Asia.

“There’s some interesting people that have been picked and will be picked – there are also some real wackjobs,” he said.


Tom Phillips in Beijing

The GuardianTramp

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