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  August 21st, 2017 | Written by

Trump Still in Search of China Strategy

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  • The Trump administration has yet to settle on a China strategy.
  • There have been confused and conflicting messages from different parts of the US government on China.
  • Beijing’s willingness to work with the US will depend on its trust the administration knows what it's doing.

The Trump administration has engaged China on North Korea and trade—without the results President Donald Trump was expecting—and has secured buy-in from the Chinese leadership for a new diplomatic framework.

But, according to a recent report from Brookings, the administration has yet to settle on a China strategy, a fact which may explain the lack of results of the engagements.

The lack of a strategy means, according to the report, that “there will continue to be confused and conflicting messages from different quarters of the United States government on China, disagreement and sloppiness on proper sequencing of actions, and limits to our ability to elicit Chinese cooperation…”

It’s emblematic of how Trump and some of his advisors lack any experience in governing. They don’t understand that without a coherent policy, “Beijing is left to parse statements from senior US officials for clues about Washington’s intentions toward China.” The Chinese are smart enough and experienced enough not to jump headlong into a relationship with a president who has been all over the map when it comes to China.

The president has suggested Taiwan could be used as leverage against China and he said he would consult with Chinese President Xi Jinping before engaging Taiwan’s leaders. Trump has bragged of his personal chemistry with Xi and later blasted Beijing for doing nothing on North Korea. He from bashed China for stealing American jobs, then exaggerated China’s token concessions on market access for US companies. Nor did the commander in chief’s “fire and fury” comments on North Korea thrill his Chinese counterparts. There has also been divergence among the president’s senior advisors in their comments on China.

On the positive side, the report gives the Trump administration good marks on questions of process. “In terms of output from these dialogues, however, the record has been disappointing,” the report concluded.

Trump has developed one important asset, and that is his personal relationship with Xi. The Mar-a-Lago meeting in March cemented those ties.

Mar-a-Lago also yielded the Comprehensive Economic Dialogue (CED), a framework that was received well by the Chinese after Trump’s heated anti-China rhetoric on the campaign trail.

But the July CED meeting ended in failure, as “Trump rejected the deal negotiated between his secretaries and the Chinese.” Trump’s initiation of a Section 301 investigation into Chinese violations of intellectual property rights and the ongoing investigation over steel leave “the Chinese side understandably confused.”

The emphasis on trade deficits the report terms “unhelpful,” as that metric “is influenced by many factors” including some over which China has no control.

Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership compromised US leverage over China and “dealt a blow to US economic and commercial influence in East Asia, at a time when China’s economic influence is expanding,” according to the report. “The administration’s disdain for the international system and multilateral institutions and norms has created dismay among Asian countries that count on these norms to provide barriers to Chinese bullying. Indeed, the only multilateral economic games in town are now China-centered…”

The administration’s focus on North Korea and trade marks a departure from the approach of the Obama administration, which engaged China on a broad range of areas to serve “as guardrails to keep the relationship from veering off track.” “With the affirmative agenda now narrowed to North Korea and trade,” the report concluded, “there is a greater demand to deliver results…”

The Trump administration is right to push China to do more on North Korea because China’s cooperation is critical to reining in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. But, the report concludes pointedly, “Beijing’s willingness to work with the United States will depend on China’s trust that the administration knows what it is doing…,” a dubious presumption indeed.