December 5, 2016

What to Watch in US-China Relations

By Jon Macha, Director, Public Programs

US-China relations have been remarkably stable for the past four decades, but two recent “firsts” have the potential to shake things up. How much, we’ll have to watch.

The now well-documented phone call that President-elect Donald Trump had with President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan was the first call between the two offices since the United States normalized relations with China in 1979. Trump has taken to Twitter to challenge those admonishing the call, noting that we should be able to have a conversation with a recipient of so many sales of US arms. He also took the opportunity to suggest that he doesn’t need China’s permission to do anything, in particular because of their actions on currency and security strategy in the South China Sea. China’s response was initially quiet, but an editorial in the People’s Daily called the call “petty” and “despicable,” and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has now reached out to the White House with a formal complaint. Without question, Trump’s Asia strategy is unfolding more quickly and with more impact than anyone expected.

Unrelated – except on balance of important firsts – it was announced that Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in January, marking the first Chinese President to visit Davos. If the current trend around the world is one of change – most glaringly in the populist, anti-globalization upheaval in the West – it appears likely that Xi and other leaders in China see an opportunity to have more influence while many western countries and institutions go through shifts in leadership – and deal with problems at home.

The Chicago Council Survey team released a report last week that outlined just how these two firsts might be viewed by the public in the United States and China. First, 61 percent of Chinese think that relations with the United States are worsening, compared with only 40 percent of Americans. An upset to the status quo, especially the One-China policy (which, intentionally or not, Donald Trump is challenging), is primed to be viewed harshly across much of China. The report also outlines that a majority of Americans (64%) and Chinese (66%) want their country to take an active part in global affairs. Xi’s visit to Davos marks a major milestone that appears to be in line with China’s evolving view of their place on the global stage. Other milestones are being set right now; just Google the acronyms OBOR, AIIB, or RCEP if you want to get caught up.

At a Council program last week, the Paulson Institute’s Damien Ma suggested that China is not a revolutionary power but a disruptive one. It is increasingly likely that a Trump administration could be a cross-Pacific counterpoint to that model. With Donald Trump’s foreign policy slowly becoming apparent, and Xi Jinping working toward a pivotal party congress in 2017, we are seeing the foundation built – unstable or not – for the next four years in the US-China relationship.

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The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

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