Belts, Roads, and Missiles: The United States, China, and North Korea

Brexit nativism, resurgent nationalism in Europe, and Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ were very visible in the headlines this year. It led an article published in the Global Times (环球时报), one of China’s most vocal tabloids, to laud China’s model as a valid alternative to the West.

In this sense, it can be argued that the past year marks a watershed for the international order similar to the 2008 economic crisis. China was able to take a relative dash forward during the 2008 financial crisis, so what are the implications of this year’s political turmoil?

A recent study by Brantly Womack looks at the implications of the global crises in the context of China’s rise.

That is of course not to ignore China’s merits. Edward Steinfeld, for example, talks about China’s achievements following its period of Reform and Opening-up (改革开放), which started in 1978:

A concerted embrace of the global economy permitted China to shift to an externally focused, trade-based mode of growth. The [subsequent] move into higher value, higher productivity industries led to an even greater acceleration of growth and an even more rapid accumulation of resources. [Here,] China’s much-publicized ambition to become a global leader in science, technology, and commercial innovation becomes so interesting.

The tectonic shift associated with the economic and political crises in the West is clearly not the sole explanation for China’s rise. However, as Womack argues, China was relatively well-positioned during both the 2008 and 2017 crises.

The China Challenge

During the 2016 presidential campaign, US president Donald Trump challenged China heavily for unfair trade practices. The American president’s tough stance on trade was also reinforced by his withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) at the beginning of his presidency. The multilateral TPP was seen as a cornerstone of the Pivot/Rebalance to Asia of the Obama administration. This policy aimed at shifting the American political, economic and military resources towards the Asia-Pacific.

Today, Womack argues:

The uncertainty of the [global political crisis of 2017], adds to the attractiveness of China’s stability and its cooperative attitude. China is the only state with sufficient economic mass, secure political leadership, and tolerance of different political systems to be politically as well as economically attractive.

While president Trump seems to be in favour of bilateralism, China has created the means to reorder the global value chains with its Belt and Road Initiative. The consolidation of Xi Jinping’s power at the recently concluded 19th Party Congress further invigorated this process. With his name now formally included into the Communist Party’s Charter, Xi Jinping took new steps towards achieving his ‘Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese People’ (中华民族伟大复兴). This goal is an all-comprising effort on the political, economic and military fronts.

Fraught with uncertainty, it is clear that the US – China relationship is one of the most important bilateral relationships. North Korea, however, has been the thorn in its side.

Dinner Time Airstrike

Finding a solution to the North Korean missile crisis is Trump’s foremost priority in Asia. While the Obama administration pursued a policy of ‘Strategic Patience’ towards North Korea, Trump early on demonstrated a tougher resolve against the country. For this reason, Trump’s election stance on China briefly changed during the Mar-a-Lago Summit with Xi Jinping in April 2017.

Deterrence, a dish best served cold (Source: Financial Times/Ingram Pinn, 2017)

Over dinner at the Florida estate, Trump nevertheless ordered a missile strike on the Shayrat air base in Syria, after chemical weapons were used by the Assad regime. The missile barrage left both North Korea and China to reassess Trump’s campaign rhetoric.

Faced with North Korean missiles, the Trump administration defined a policy of ‘Strategic Accountability’ in August 2017. With this new policy, the US will henceforth seek to up the pressure on North Korea by holding nations accountable to their commitments to isolate the regime. Here, the Trump administration sees a big role for China to play.

A Grand Bargain…

Evan Feigenbaum has argued that “not since Nixon has a US president faced such a tough China challenge.” By describing China’s ascendance to the global stage, his article underscores the need for a more sustainable relationship between the US and China.

It is this context that US president Donald Trump made a five-nation tour in Asia, last November. During the tour, Trump touted the concept of a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’. Aimed at strengthening the economic and security ties with the region, Trump’s visit to China was arguably the most important one.

Interestingly enough, president Trump praised China for unfair trade practices. In a turn away from his campaign, Trump instead shifted the blame towards previous administrations. In a similar vein, the South China Sea disputes also got but a small mention. Perhaps this was an attempt to get China to do more on North Korea. What’s more, after Trump’s visit to China, a list of some 37 deals with a total value of $250 billion was announced.

The linkage of the China – US trade relationship with regional security issues in Asia clearly demonstrates Trump’s transactional approach to diplomacy. It is clear that trade and investment are at the top of Trump’s list. On China’s list, that would be Taiwan. The phone call in December 2016 between Donald Trump and the island’s president Tsai Ing-wen took many by surprise.

Not much later Trump also called into question the ‘One China’ policy’. This US acknowledgement of China’s ‘One China’ principle (一个中国原则) serves as the foundation of the US – China relations.“ I don’t know why we have to be bound by a ‘One China’ policy, unless we make a deal with China,” said Trump. Taiwan, on its part, feared of becoming a bargaining chip.

… or More US-China Competition?

Missile launches and nuclear tests by North Korea led Trump to take action withtrade probes against China and military maneuvers in Asia. During the latest missile scare, Trump’s increasingly confrontational stance toward China also unfolded.

The America First National SecurityStrategy (NSS) released on 18 December saw the culmination of these efforts (Green) into a single document. Three sorts of challengers are identified: revisionist powers (China and Russia), (Iran and North Korea) and transnational threat organisations (in particular jihadist terrorist groups).

Contrary to earlier reports, there is no explicit mention of China in reference to economic aggression. The NSS does tackle the assumed link between China’s inclusion into the international order and the presumed liberalisation of China.

For decades, U.S. policy was rooted in the belief that support for China’s rise and for its integration into the post-war international order would liberalise China. Contrary to our hopes, China expanded its power at the expense of the sovereignty of others. China gathers and exploits data on an unrivaled scale and spreads features of its authoritarian system, including corruption and the use of surveillance. It is building the most capable and well-funded military in the world, after our own. Its nuclear arsenal is growing and diversifying. Part of China’s military modernization and economic expansion is due to its access to the U.S. innovation economy, including America’s world-class universities.

The above statement marks a striking return to a realist interpretation of great power politics. The NSS clearly defines a world in which the US will increasingly be faced with political, economic, and military competition from China and Russia.

At its core, the NSS deserves merits for incorporating economic matters into the broader US security policymaking. However, not all of China’s economic behaviour is of course predatory. The large Chinese market and Chinese technology and capital, for example, can be of great interest to the world.

China’s rise as an economic powerhouse is perhaps most visible through its Belt and Road Initiative. Described as China’s project of the century, the Initiative lays the foundations of a global engagement. The West is slowly waking up to this trend.

Meanwhile, developments on the Korean Peninsula are a good indicator of Trump’s Asia policy. It will be interesting to see where the US – China relationship goes from here.