Will U.S.-China Relations Deteriorate in 2018?
During his successful run for the presidency in 2016, Donald Trump struck a combative tone toward China, a country he accused of taking advantage of the U.S. through unfair economic practices and doing too little to help solve the North Korean nuclear crisis. One year into his presidency, U.S.-China ties have largely been constructive — but experts predict that the new year will bring new challenges to the world's most crucial bipartisan relationship.
Evan Medeiros, managing director of Asia at the Eurasia Group, believes that the Trump administration will launch a series of "very serious" unilateral trade actions against China in the first part of 2018, intending to forge a more reciprocal trade relationship between the two countries. These moves are unlikely to receive a warm welcome in Beijing. "It's basically going to be a game of chicken," Medeiros said on Wednesday at Asia Society. "Who can tolerate more pain before some sort of deal is reached?"
Asia Society Policy Institute President Kevin Rudd agreed that U.S. action on trade would likely not result in concessions from Beijing. "There's a benign assumption that if the U.S. would simply stoke the furnace and throw 10 economic missiles in the air, the Chinese will say 'Ah! We've got that wrong. We must concede to our American friends,'" he said. "I've been studying China for 35 years and see no evidence that they would ever do that."
Rudd also predicted that the "chaotic" nature of the American policy toward North Korea could provoke a crisis with Beijing, whom the Trump administration has pressed to exert more pressure on Pyongyang's mercurial leader Kim Jong Un. "I have a deep sense of foreboding that these two things will compound in a deeper crisis on U.S.-China relations,” he said.
Financial Times columnist Rana Foroohar, an expert on global economic trends, highlighted a longer-term risk to U.S.-China relations: economic disruption caused by automation and technological change. Fewer jobs in the manufacturing sector will require creative intervention by the U.S. government in order to support displaced workers — a task that the Trump administration seems disinclined to tackle, she said. "The U.S. is not going to be able to navigate the next five to 10 years of economic change and technological disruption well at all relative to China," she said, noting that Beijing has fewer qualms about intervening in the economy. "That puts the U.S. at a major disadvantage and will make all the angry people who voted for President Trump even angrier. And China will be the bogeyman."
Medeiros, Rudd, and Foroohar were joined by National Defense University scholar Hassan Abbas for Asia Society's annual look at the year to come. The conversation, moderated by Asia Society Executive Vice President Tom Nagorski, can be viewed in full below: