Interview: David Bachman on President Trump’s visit to China, continuity and discontinuity of U.S. China policy
By Wen Liu Nov. 18, 2017
On Nov. 6, Professor David Bachman, of International Relations and U.S.-China Relations at the UW, gave the China lecture in the lecture series on “Trump in the World: International Implications” by the Jackson School of International Studies. Reviewing U.S.-China relations since Nixon and analyzing the two countries’ differences in national identity, understanding of the global order and vision of the future, Prof. Bachman pointed out that even with uncertainties under Trump, elements of continuity in U.S. China policy were likely to be as great as elements of discontinuity. When I commented that it would be great if he had given the lecture after President Trump’s visit to China, Prof. Bachman kindly agreed to an interview after the visit. So here Prof. Bachman talks about President Trump’s recent trip to China, U.S.-China trade, North Korea, Indo-Pacific and more.
WCWD: In your “Trump in the world” lecture, you said that elements of continuity in U.S. China policy were likely to be as great as elements of discontinuity. How did President Trump’s “state visit plus” to Beijing last week turned out in your prediction?
David Bachman: I think President Trump’s visit to China last week was a productive meeting, in the sense that it continued to develop personal relationship between Xi Jinping and President Trump. It was low on actual achievement. It continued the America approach that the best way to deal with North Korea is to get China to pressure North Korea. President Trump highlighted issues in U.S.-China trade he thought might have to be done, but he seemed to be satisfied with the range of announcements about deals that were done. Again that is the element of continuity in U.S. China trade. Whenever a president goes, he often has these announcements about deals being done, even if many of them are not finalized or may never get finalized. In terms of changes, Trump is moving away from the traditional stand of the United States on free trade. But we haven’t seen the specifics of that yet. It will take a little while for those to be rolled out. Depending on what China does, maybe some of the more dire predictions of what might happen in U.S.-China trade will be muted if China would be able to move on with North Korea.
WCWD: So on North Korea, President Trump said the U.S. and China were both committed to the complete denuclearization, fully implementing all U.N. resolutions, etc. He then urged North Korea to come to the table and make a deal. He also called on all responsible nations to stop arming, financing and even trading with North Korea. Do you see anything new there?
David Bachman: In terms of President Trump’s call, no. United States’ position demanding complete, verifiable, irreversible disarmament is not one that is likely to be very appealing to the North Koreans, giving up their leverage before they get to the negotiating table. China’s position is increasingly critical of North Korea although China is sending the head of the International Liaison Department to North Korea to talk. The Chinese are upset with what the North Koreans are doing. But the Chinese government doesn’t believe that economic sanctions will be enough to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. They are afraid that a very vigorous sanction regime with no trade with North Korea will only push North Korea into a corner, out of which it would use its nuclear weapons if necessary to defend itself to prevent or to forestall a collapse, or at least threaten to. On the other hand, China understands that the rest of the international community is watching what it does to North Korea and seeing it as a measure of China’s willingness to step up and serve as a leading power to try to deal with a difficult problem. Indeed it is a difficult problem. But in this sense, I don’t think there is anything new at all in Trump’s approach to North Korea.
WCWD: On U.S.-China trade, President Trump called it “very one-sided and unfair” and said China’s unfair trade practices drove the huge annual deficit. However, in front of his Chinese hosts, he blamed it on his predecessors instead of China. Do you think that was being diplomatic, tongue in cheek, or change of position?
David Bachman: I think he was trying to play up to Xi Jinping. He was putting the Chinese on notice that things have to be changed. There are elements of the trade deficit that are the result of Chinese violations or at least one-sided interpretations of trade laws that benefit China at the expense of others. But there are many good reasons for structural deficit in U.S.-China trade relations. It does show that, I think, Trump is going to tighten up on U.S.-China trade. It is a concern the Trump administration has articulated both in the campaign and since he has come to office. There will be actions taken in the next month or so that will impose sanctions and do other things on China trade.
WCWD: On this five-nation Asia trip, President Trump also for the first time talked about a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” with a sideline meeting of officials of the “Quad,” the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue of U.S., Japan, Australia and India. Do you see this as President Trump's version of a “pivot to Asia” to counter China?
David Bachman: Certainly the Trump administration is emphasizing this Indo-Pacific concept. I can think of a number of academics and others who have been talking about the Indo-Pacific for a while, at least for two or three years. In that sense, the idea that India is part of what has been the Asia Pacific, giving more status to India, is something that has been building. We could sort of trace rising American concern about or American desire for India to play a leading role, perhaps helping to check China’s rise, or at least to put some constraints on China’s behavior, for an extended period of time. In that sense it is a continuation of American policy of hedging about China, hoping to work with China. If that doesn’t work out, be prepared for the worst, trying to build a coalition that would be willing to confront China if it needs to, so it wouldn’t be just the United States doing it. India, Australia, Japan, in their own reason, have some desire to participate in this. They certainly don’t want to take the lead in being in confrontation with China, given their extensive trade relations with the PRC.
WCWD: Many people, like Susan Rice in an op-ed in the NYT, said that Trump was making China great again, especially with this Asian trip. Do you think it is Trump 10 months into his office or several American administrations together or Xi Jinping that has made China great again?
David Bachman: Well I think Trump’s cut back on trade, pulling out the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the mixed messages that many perceive coming out of this trip, all suggest that in important way that China is being somewhat ceded the field. United State, in not going to be as deeply involved, it is going to be much more confrontational on trade issues with both allies in potential and others in Asia, in not staffing the State Department, in cutting back on foreign aid, in other words, it is giving up all sorts of tools other than military tools to exercise influence in Asia. In that sense, we are leaving the field open for China to expand its influence through financial assistance, through tourism, and through many other tools, or just movement of Chinese people back and forth across Asia. So in that sense, I think, without a broader strategy, which I think Trump is incapable of having, the view that Making America Great Again is only about the United States, that is zero-sum or at least much closer to zero-sum, while a more win-win type has been the tradition in the American foreign policy, is opening a huge window of opportunity for the PRC. Whether the PRC is able to capitalize on that is another question. There are some signs of softening or at least a willingness on the part of the PRC to negotiate a code of conduct in the South China Sea. That suggests that China is right now responding to these opportunities, wanting to advance its position.
(For more information on major events in Washington state-China relations, go to WA China Chronicle.)