On January 20th 2017, Donald J. Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States. On January 28th, Chinese began their celebration of the Year of the Rooster.
In a festive nod to the Lunar New Year, a Chinese shopping mall displayed a “YUGE” blow-up sculpture: half bird/half billionaire/all Trump. The rooster’s golden coif and red wattle, hanging like a Republican power tie, served as the unofficial mascot of Mr. Trump’s initial foray into U.S.-China relations. Conspicuously missing were the customary official Lunar New Year greetings from the White House to Chinese around the world. But nobody in China missed the connection between the blow-up chicken statue, full of hot air, and the president who likes to Tweet and often crows.
Trump began his U.S.-China policy by ruffling feathers and trying to establish himself at the top of the political pecking order. During his campaign, he complained (often and loudly) about Chinese treating the U.S. “unfairly” in trade and “stealing jobs.” He threatened to place large tariffs on Chinese imports. And one of his earliest congratulatory telephone calls was from Taiwan’s (newly-elected and independence-leaning) president–a challenge of the longstanding U.S. “One China” policy, (and a call for which former-VP candidate Bob Dole reportedly scored $40,000 in legal fees.)
Smoothing Ruffled Feathers at Mar-a-Lago
But more recently, a sort of political bromance between Mr. Trump and China’s President, Xi Jinping, has been slowly emerging. The warming relationship between the two leaders was evident during the visit to Mar-a-Lago made by Xi and his wife in April.
The choice of the Florida venue, far from the formality of the official White House, signaled the two leaders’ desire to establish a personal working relationship and improve rapport. Prior to the visit, some critics pointed out Xi’s aversion to both golf and the over-the-top lifestyle of the Donald, part of his vigorous anti-corruption campaign in China. He has barred Chinese officials from the golf course and strongly condemned lavish banquets at official functions.
But there was plenty of low key interaction at Mar-a-Lago that the Chinese president appeared to genuinely appreciate. This was mostly carried out at an intimate and personal level. Trump’s grandchildren, Arabella and Joseph Kushner, began what some have labeled the Trump family “charm offensive” when they greeted China’s first couple in Mandarin.
“We wanted to make you feel at home,” first daughter Ivanka is heard saying in a video she released of her children at the summit. Arabella then sang the popular Chinese song, Jasmine Flower (Mo Li Hua) and recited the Three Character Classic (San Zi Jing), a text used to teach children in China. The Chinese internet exploded in praise. Clearly, this was something to crow about as U.S.-China relations take form under Mr. Trump’s presidency.
Bloomberg News cited “getting to know one another” as one of the biggest accomplishments of the summit, while Cheng Li, Director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institute, opined that “the success or failure of this summit, however, may also be judged by whether the two presidents can develop a sensible, respectful, and even trusting personal connection.”
Cornfield Diplomacy in Iowa
The latest feather in Trump’s U.S.-China diplomatic cap is another personal relationship. On May 24th, the Senate approved and confirmed Terry Branstad as the U. S. Ambassador to China (82-13). Branstad, the Governor of Iowa (who holds the longest governorship in U.S. history) enjoys a personal friendship with Xi Jinping that stretches back for decades.
In 1985, Xi Jinping, then a young agricultural official from Hebei Province, visited the town of Muscatine in the eastern part of the Hawkeye State. Xi’s visit to Iowa was part of a sister-state exchange, and he fondly remembers his home stays with hospitable Iowa families. Their shared passion for agriculture cemented the friendship between Xi and Branstad.
In 2012, Branstad once again welcomed Xi, now Vice President of China, to a state dinner. The Muscatine, Iowa location of the dinner was specifically requested by Xi, who said he remembered his warm welcome to the town decades earlier.
“Cornfield diplomacy” was the term reporters coined for this visit. Some cynics pointed to China’s growing need for U.S. agriculture to feed its population of over one billion people. But increased U.S. agricultural exports to China would amount to a significant change in the U.S.-China trade imbalance. After the Mar-a-Lago summit, China lifted its ban on the import of U.S. beef, a $7 billion market. Xi also offered to buy more grain and other American agricultural products. Hardly chicken feed.
Although the Chinese call Branstad a “friend of China,” he was a big supporter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP). This 12-nation trade deal did not include China—designed to limit Chinese influence in the Asia-Pacific region. On his first day in office, President Trump signed an executive order removing the U.S. from the agreement.
“Maybe it can be renegotiated and China could be included,” says Branstad. “That’s something I think should be looked at. Or the other thing to do would be bilateral agreements.” This would be a change for the U.S. where China policies have taken the form of efforts to contain the rapidly rising growth of China.
The United States can delay China’s rise on the global stage, but ultimately, we cannot prevent it. For much of recorded history, China has been the largest economy in the world, and the dominant power in Asia. From an historical perspective, the rise of Chinese is inevitable.
The negative consequences of this containment policy may come home to roost.
The Chicken or the Egg: Missed Opportunities
China has launched two intertwined initiatives in which a partnership with the U.S. can transform the world: The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the One Belt, One Road initiative.
For centuries, China was linked with the outside world through a system of camel caravans and shipping routes called the Silk Roads. The New Chinese Silk Roads Initiatives seeks to once again link east and west by both land and sea routes. The Chinese call the New Silk Roads yi dai, yi lu, which translates as “one belt, one road.”
One Belt, One Road, when successfully completed, will transform the economic and political maps of the super Eurasian-African continent through an integrated and improved infrastructure. China is sponsoring and financing infrastructure projects including new railway lines and bridges, as well as the refurbishing and expansion of airports and shipping ports, power plants and pipelines. Much of this will be financed by AIIB.
Those Americans who oppose U.S. membership in AIIB cite fears that the bank will function as a lever for Beijing to extend its influence. But when the United States chose not to join AIIB as a founding member, it missed the chance to contribute to its governance and structure.
The Trump administration has talked quite a bit about U.S. infrastructure and building, but not at all about AIIB and One Belt, One Road. Donald Trump, a builder, could offer unique leadership and genuine partnership with China in this endeavor. Instead, America’s infrastructure continues to crumble while the United States misses the chance to join with the Chinese in a strategic partnership to rewrite the governing principles and rules for a new international regime.
These two examples show that America’s zero-sum game approach to China has failed. What is clear is that there is a deficit of trust towards the Chinese on the part of the United States.
The most important task for both countries is to avoid falling into what political scientists call “Thucydides’s Trap.”
When a rising power threatens to displace a ruling one, the most likely outcome is war.In History of the Peloponnesian War, Athenian general and statesman, Thucydides, wrote about the hegemonic struggle between Sparta and Athens. Sparta was then the status quo power, a bit like the U.S. today. Athens, like today’s China, was the rising power. Thucydides wrote: “What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian Power and the fear which this caused in Sparta.”
Today, the warning tale of Thucydides’s Trap is making the international rounds in regard to U.S.-China relations. Graham Allison’s new book, Destined for War: Can American and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? warns, “China and the United States are heading towards a war neither wants.” But Allison also argues that there is still hope that Donald Trump and Xi Jinping, men who have both vowed to make their countries “great again,” can use imaginative statecraft to avoid Thucydides’s Trap and war. This effort is full of unexpected challenges, and the burden is on the shoulders of the U.S., the status quo power. Not for the chicken-hearted.
The question that looms over the Year of the Rooster is this: Can Donald Trump and Terry Branstad craft U.S.-China relations to avoid falling into Thucydides’s Trap?
In this effort, can the U.S. build upon Branstad’s status as a “friend of China” and work in partnership with China instead of continuing the practice of containment of China? Can we Americans and the Chinese work together for the common good?
The dawn of a new day is signaled by the rooster’s crow. During the Year of the Rooster, a new day in U.S.-China relations could be signed by a Tweet from Mr. Trump crowing about new partnerships between the world’s two biggest economies resulting in unprecedented peace and prosperity.