With President Donald Trump’s rise to power, the world has seen a shift in America’s relations with China. Despite worry that he would not, Trump began his presidency by promising to honor the One-China policy, which recognizes Beijing as the only legitimate Chinese government. In April of that year, Trump hosted President Xi at his Mar-a-Lago resort for a two-day summit, after which Trump touted “tremendous progress” in trade discussions, and Xi asserted to the Chinese media that he and Trump had “engaged in a deeper understanding, and have built a trust.” A ten-part agreement was unveiled in mid-May between Beijing and Washington to expand trade of products and services like beef, poultry, and electronic payments. While U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross described the relationship as “hitting a new high,” experts were less impressed.
March 22, 2018 brought an announcement of sweeping tariffs on Chinese imports in response to what the White House alleges is Chinese theft of U.S. technology and intellectual property. In combination with tariffs placed on steel and aluminum earlier in the month, the new taxes target goods including clothes, shoes, and electronics, and restrict some Chinese investment in the U.S. In retaliation, China imposed similar measures in early April on a range of U.S. products, sparking concerns of a trade war which quickly came to fruition and escalated throughout the year. President Trump made it clear that he believes that China is “ripping off” the U.S. by taking advantage of free trade rules.
Looking back on these events with the start of the new year, 2018 was a watershed moment in U.S.-China relations. Shifting from an era of expanding cooperation, there is now a course correction of U.S. foreign policy. President Xi’s more assertive domestic policy includes an increase in defense spending and consolidation of military control; doubling down on efforts to gain control of the South China Sea; a crackdown on dissent; and, abroad, increased political interference. Additionally, Beijing has been coordinating with Moscow on security-related issues. Taken together, the U.S. is right to view China with caution. Despite the trade war, the Trump administration’s hardline stance on China has been met with widespread support, with only a few voices in the financial and technological industries still pushing for cooperation. Trump’s policy so far has been to push back against growing Chinese assertiveness through the framework of “peace through strength,” with the hopes of stabilizing relations.
With Trump’s “America First” policy and Xi’s military expansionism, we are seeing a turbulence and a deep structural shift in U.S. foreign policy that is escalating tensions between the two countries. By leaving behind cooperation, we are entering into an era of strategic competition. Economic cooperation can be maintained, and the two countries are likely to call a ceasefire if not sign a peace agreement; cooperation on key global issues can be resumed. With a new election coming up, President Trump and his preferred methods of foreign policy – tweets and tariffs – may soon become a thing of the past. However, the shift in U.S. views on China will endure. With this turning point comes a new challenge for both Washington and Beijing: to find a way to manage this competition without it deteriorating into conflict.