As the trade war escalates, Donald Trump is seeking to preserve space for a possible deal and leaving his deputy to tackle the tough questions.
After a landmark speech this month at the Hudson Institute, which signalled a fundamental shift in America’s China policy, Vice President Mike Pence will lead a US delegation to three important multilateral summits in November. While President Donald Trump has lavished praise on China’s President Xi Jinping despite their escalating trade war, Pence is leading the administration’s charge against China.
Mr Trump and Mr Pence might, in fact, be playing a deliberate game of good cop, bad cop.
Mr Trump’s handling of China reflects his reluctance to antagonize Mr Xi or impose sanctions on China even in response to egregious human-rights abuses, including its internment of up to one million Muslims from Xinjiang. Had Russia set up such camps, the US response would likely have been swift and resolute.
The US president is a great believer in the idea that a good rapport between heads of government can significantly shape the relationship between the countries they lead. He also prides himself on being a great negotiator and deal-maker.
While letting his vice president forthrightly articulate America’s concerns over China, Mr Trump is seeking to preserve space to cut a possible deal with Mr Xi on trade. Mr Trump and Mr Xi, in their first face-to-face interaction in nearly a year, are likely to meet on November 29 in Buenos Aires, a day before the G20 summit opens there.
In his recent speech, Mr Pence highlighted how China is blending economic aggression, territorial and maritime revisionism, military adventurism, influence operations and Orwellian repression at home to advance its ambitions.
More importantly, Mr Pence declared that “the US has adopted a new approach to China”, saying that “previous administrations all but ignored China’s actions. And in many cases, they abetted them. But those days are over.”
The speech laid out why the Trump administration is making a course correction in the China policy that successive American presidents have pursued since the early 1970s, when the US managed the diplomatic coup of splitting its two main enemies – the Soviet Union and China. With the US winning over China to its side, it became two against one. This proved a critical factor in the eventual US victory in the Cold War and the Soviet Union’s collapse.
In return, the US actively aided China’s rise. After Deng Xiaoping emerged as China’s paramount leader in 1978, following a fierce power struggle, and embarked on economic modernisation, the US lent full support to his mission.
The US policy of assisting China’s economic ascent did not change even in response to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. There, Chinese authorities used tanks to ruthlessly crush student-led protests in the heart of Beijing – an action that left hundreds, possibly thousands, dead.
But now the Trump administration has unveiled a new strategy to shift the US relationship with China from co-operation to competition, including confronting Chinese mercantilism and Beijing’s campaign of influence operations on American soil.
As Mr Pence put it, the US miscalculated that after the fall of the Soviet Union, “a free China was inevitable”. Today, according to him, an increasingly authoritarian and aggressive China has “mobilised covert actors, front groups, and propaganda outlets to shift Americans’ perception of Chinese policy … what the Russians are doing pales in comparison to what China is doing across this country”.
Against this backdrop, it might seem appropriate that Mr Trump is sending the blunt-speaking Mr Pence in his place to the forthcoming multilateral summits in the Indo-Pacific region − the East Asia Summit (EAS) and the US-Asean summit, both to be held in Singapore in mid-November, followed by the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) group summit at Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, on November 17-18.
APEC summits, instituted in 1993, have become largely symbolic, and Mr Trump’s absence at Port Moresby will not be unusual. Bill Clinton missed two summits and Barack Obama skipped one. As APEC’s membership has expanded, the grouping’s cohesiveness and mission have weakened.
The promise of the 18-nation EAS has also faded. Like the 21-nation APEC, the EAS includes America’s main geopolitical rivals, China and Russia.
In this light, to counter the rise of an increasingly muscular China that refuses to play by international rules, substance matters more for US policy than group photographs at multilateral summits.
It is significant that, in an otherwise polarised and divided Washington, a bipartisan consensus is emerging that the failed US policy of “constructive engagement” with China must be replaced with concrete counteraction.
For example, in a Harvard University essay this month, Obama’s defence secretary, Ashton Carter, writes: “Washington since the end of the Cold War has often backed down in the face of Chinese bullying. From aggressive territorial claims to human-rights abuses and brazen theft on a trillion-dollar scale, China has violated core international norms time and again with little repercussions beyond scolding American speeches”.
Mr Carter recommends that, “when China behaves inappropriately on the international stage, the US must firmly push back and stand up for the principles of international order”. Mr Pence has signalled that this is precisely what the Trump administration intends to do.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author, most recently, of the award-winning Water, Peace, and War.