Sino-US Relations, Put Simply

China and United States Formally Join Paris Agreement

By Campaign Agent Marykate Monaghan

The relationship between the United States of America (US) and China one of the most interesting on the world stage. China’s rising power is changing the power dynamics, creating more competition than cooperation between the two largest powers. Add in the unique isolating policies of the Trump Administration and more instability is established in the already fragile relationship.

By contrast, Obama’s handling of the Sino-US relations was that of precise and well thought-out strategies, reflected by his symbolic visit to China in 2009, becoming the first US president to visit the state in their first year in office. This, alongside his shift in foreign policy towards becoming less actively engaged with the Asia-Pacific area, illustrates a complex, but trustworthy relationship formed by the time his administration was concluded.

Despite this, contemporary developments such as increased tensions with North Korea has destabilized the relations once again, as China has continuously been scrutinized by the Trump administration for not doing enough to force the North Korean Regime to abandon their nuclear weapons programme. In short, in the trump era of Sino-US relations, there are many factors at play, some of which may add to existing tensions.

Secondary Actors and their Impact

The cracks within the US-Sino relations were already beginning to show even before Donald Trump became President, as during his time as President Elect, he accepted a phone call from the Taiwanese President congratulating him on his electoral success. While this may seem a routinely performed activity, it caused huge tension within the US- China relationship, principally, as a result of the emotional dynamics at play. Taiwan has been a touchy subject between the two states for many years, highlighted by the 1995 Taiwan Strait Crisis. China sees Taiwan as being part of the state, and is angered by the prospect of the US recognising the island as independent, suggested by President Trump engaging in diplomatic dialogue with the Taiwanese President. Thus, tensions within the US-China relationship can worsen through the US’s relationship with secondary states. Trump seemed to be unaware of the “One China Principle” which renders any communication with Taiwan as unacceptable.

Economic Interdependence

But it’s not all doom and gloom. The economic interdependence between China and the US encourages cooperation. This is evident from the increasing commercial links between the two, following China’s entry into the World Trade Organisation in 2001, and reflects how economic ties render conflict between the two devastating for both economies. Likewise, their presence in International Institutions, such as the United Nations General Assembly and Security Council, extends this cooperation, as it offers them the chance to understand the other’s intentions and interests and can set up opportunities for the states to work together, rather than compete.

Yet, this harmony was threatened by President Trump’s recent decision to pull the US out of the Paris Accords, which was drafted to ensure an international effort to challenge the impact of Climate Change. This decision was met with anger from the Chinese officials, which had also agreed to the Accords, and reflected a testing time within the relationship. This shows how Trump’s isolationist approach may continue to threaten the cooperation established by the economic ties and presence in international organisations, making it an interesting one to monitor over the next three years.

Geopolitical Knife-Edge

Likewise, the geopolitical influences between the US and China places the relationship on a political knife-edge. The US has considerable military presence surrounding China as a result of their military bases in the Philippines and security alliances with South Korea and Japan. This has led to fear in China of their power being unduly contained. Consequently, the Chinese government aims to consolidate this power through a defensive sphere within East Asia to counter the aggressive presence posed by the US (a move that reflects assumptions within Defensive Realism within the discipline of International Relations). Hence, Steve Bannon’s comments on the almost definite conflict that will occur in the South China Sea because of its geopolitical location, “we’re going to war in the South China Sea”.

This also highlights the role of personality within the relationship, as these unprecedented comments, such as that by Steve Bannon and a collection of tweets by President Trump, can be seen to escalate fragile aspects of the relationship and threaten the peaceful maintenance of their relations. For how this may affect the relations long term will only be answered towards the end of the administration, but the damage done by the comments already, may have permanently strained the relationship.

The issue of North Korea

North Korea’s continued missile tests and progress towards establishing full nuclear capability has added considerably to the tension in US-Sino relations. Trump continues to   criticise China’s lack of pressure applied to North Korea. Indeed, China and Russia both oppose the full economic sanctions demanded by the Trump administration.

The Chinese government feel the responsibility for preventing the use of nuclear weapons has been left for them solely to deal with as a result of their extensive trade partnership and perceived influence over the regime. The situation becomes more tricky as the US continues to demand China hinder the Kim Jong Un regime. Similarly, the format used for these comments has lead to further instability in the relationship, as Chinese officials continue to scrutinise President Trumps “emotional venting” on Twitter, claiming it is escalating the issue on the Korean peninsula rather than helping it. The comments made by President Trump in a speech threatening for the rogue state to be met with “fire and fury never seen before” undermines this search for diplomatic resolution.

Thus, the miscommunication and mismatching diplomatic styles has lead to more contemporary tension within the relationship. While China is reluctant to work with the US’ aggressive and unprofessional diplomatic dialogue, the US is becoming more and more impatient with the lack of progress of China’s lack-luster attempts to rein in the North Korean regime. This not only threatens their own relationship, but worldwide peace and safety if the issue is escalated further, and if nuclear weapons are deployed in East Asia; a symbolic point of no return for all three states of North Korea, China, and the US.

Sources and further reading:

Brzezinski, Z and Mearsheimer, J. (2005) ‘Clash of the Titans.’ Foreign Policy. pp. 46-47.

Friedberg, A. (2005) ‘The Future of U.S.-China Relations: Is Conflict Inevitable?’ International Security. 30(2), pp.7-45.

Shepperd, T. (2013) Sino-US relations and the role of emotion in state action: understanding post-cold war crisis interactions. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Image: United Nations Photo @Flick

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