Trump's Trade and Security Challenges with China

Ambassador Nicholas Burns, Ashley Tellis, Yun Sun, and Jon Williams discuss President-elect Donald Trump's proposed trade policies with China and what implications they could have. (3 min., 28 sec.)

When Donald Trump assumes the presidency of the United States on January 20, perhaps his most complex foreign policy challenge will be China.

“We have to balance two competing priorities with China,” said former U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns. “We have to look at China in the next 20-to-30 years as our most important partner in the world. … But here's the rub: It's going to be our strongest competitor for military predominance.”

Burns, speaking Thursday in New York on an Asia Society panel discussing how Trump should manage U.S. interests in Asia, said that the president-elect’s campaign rhetoric suggesting the abandonment of security alliances with South Korea and Japan — and even encouraging them to develop their own nuclear weapons — is untenable. “Mr. President, our alliances are the foundation stone of American power,” he said, adding that “this is the great power differential between the United States and China. China has no reliable friends in the world and we, over 71 years, have built an alliance system.”

Territorial Disputes and North Korea

Yun Sun, a senior associate with the East Asia Program at the Henry L. Stimson Center, pointed to territorial conflicts in the South China Sea, where China has become more assertive in recent years in enforcing claims against rival Southeast Asian claimants. She said China may be anxious to fill a “vacuum” if the Unites States were to withdrawal from its presence in the Pacific.

“On China, the most important issue for the first hundred days is to set the right tone and set the right boundaries to show this is not an opportunity Beijing should just exploit,” she said, adding that the U.S. should continue its naval and air “freedom of navigation” military patrols in the region and draw a “red line” at allowing China to launch an air defense identification zone (ADIZ).

Burns also pointed to the East China Sea, where Japan and China have long been locked in a dispute over an uninhabited island chain known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan. In 2014, President Barack Obama announced that protection of islands fell within the U.S.-Japan security treaty. “Donald Trump needs to repeat that phrase: ‘We will fight for this,’ knowing the Chinese would never contest the American military over the uninhabited islands,” Burns said.

Another security issue will be North Korea, which many analysts believe is nearing the ability to hit the United States with a nuclear tipped intercontinental ballistic missile. China, which maintains trade with North Korea that appears to be enabling its weapons development programs, has been reticent to enforce sanctions that could destabilize the isolated country. “From a diplomatic standpoint, we have to convince the Chinese that there's going to be a major impact on the U.S. China relationship if North Korea attains the ability to threaten California with a nuclear weapon,” Burns said, adding that sanctions against China shouldn’t be ruled out if it fails to act on North Korea. “I wouldn’t start with sanctions, you end with sanctions if all else fails.”

Tariffs and TPP

Trade with China will also likely prove to be a complex undertaking for President-elect Trump, who has consistently blamed unfair Chinese trade practices and currency manipulation for many of the woes in the American economy. Trump has threatened to levy a 45 percent tariff on all Chinese goods and label China a currency manipulator on day one of his presidency. He has also made clear that he intends to discard the Trans-Pacific Partnership — a free trade agreement between the United States and 11 Pacific Rim countries (but not China).

Ashley Tellis, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that the United States has been a net beneficiary of globalization. But the spoils have not been distributed equally within the U.S., which was one of the major factors propelling Trump and his protectionist trade platform to the presidency. Tellis said that pulling away from the global trade system in order to mitigate the struggles of blue collar workers who’ve been left behind is akin to “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

“The objective of ‘making America great again’ is wonderful,” Tellis said. “But I think the way [Trump] plans to go about doing it may not be exactly the right strategy called for at the time. … I would suggest paying attention to the imbalances in our public finances, paying close attention to what we need to do to build a labor force capable of coping with the challenges of globalization, and pay close attention to what is necessary to improve America’s capacity for innovation and productivity.”

Burns said that if the U.S. pulls away from free trade agreements like TPP and its leading role in the “liberal global order,” the U.S. “will have lost, for a generation, strategic advantage to China.” He added that Trump will likely have advisors telling him these things. The question will be whether he listens. “We can't answer a lot of these questions until we see him in action,” he said.

In the above video clip, watch Burns, Sun and Tellis further discuss the implications of Trump's proposed trade policies with China. Watch the complete program in the video below.

Ambassador Nicholas Burns, Ashley Tellis, Yun Sun, and Jon Williams discuss what lies in store for President-elect Donald Trump in regards to U.S. engagement with the nations of Asia, what issues are the highest in priority, and what the U.S. role and posture should be. (1 hr., 12 min.)

About the Author

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Eric Fish was a Content Producer at Asia Society New York and is author of the book China's Millennials: The Want Generation.