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Event Report - Impact of Trump on US-China Relations

16 February 2017

With the new US president taking office on 20 January 2017, it is necessary to reflect on the future of US-China relations, and their impact on Europe. During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump criticized China strongly on trade and regional security. He also raised tensions by entertaining a phone conversation with the Taiwanese leader, hence questioning the One-China policy. Whereas his team includes notable hardliners towards China, his actual policy and intentions remain unclear. Equally unclear is how China will respond to the change of guard in Washington. From a European perspective, the future of US-China relations is of tremendous importance, in terms of global stability, prosperity and responsibility. It will also determine the scope and direction of Europe’s quest for strategic autonomy.

On 9 February, the EU-Asia Centre, the Brussels Academy for China and European Studies (BACES) and the Confucius Institute at Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), together with Egmont - Royal Institute for International Relations, Centre Européen de Recherches Internationales et Stratégiques, organized a workshop and academic debate on the Trump Administration and US-China Relations: The Chinese and European Perspectives.

Prof. Canrong JIN, Associate Dean, School of International Studies, Renmin University of China, said that Donald Trump is another kind of president, different from all previous leaders. He has a varied staff which will be difficult to unite as a team. Trump’s views on foreign policy are unpredictable and changing. China still has the same attitude towards the US, being a partner, cooperating on many issues, while facing many differences that cannot be resolved. At best, the differences can be put under control. China would also seek to intensify contacts with the EU, Russia and other partners. He highlighted that there will be five cards that the Trump administration might play in the future with China: first, to have a trade war. The second card is Taiwan; the third card is the South China Sea; the fourth card is North Korea; and the fifth card is Russia. China will pay attention to global governance. A collective study by the politburo was evidence of how serious China takes this issue.

Prof. Weiping HUANG, Jean Monnet Chair, Renmin University of China highlighted that Trump is putting things that he promised during the campaign into action - withdrawal from TTP, cancel Obama care, build Wall between Mexico and the US; Muslim ban, etc. Trump just did what he promised. He also said that the change of the monetary policy of the US would have an impact on China, if someone closes one door in the world, other doors will open. As US withdraw from TPP, this gives China a great opportunity in globalization. The OBOR project becomes more influential and open to the world. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) will also make China integrated more with all the other countries in the Asia Pacific. Although there might be a limited trade war, the basic relations between US and China will not change. Every new US president was saying or doing something against China once they just took the office, but in the end of the president's term, a win-win relationship was always developed.

Prof. Zhe SUN, Co-Director, China Initiative, School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University said that 2017 will be a turning point in US-China relations. It would be a sweet and sour relationship. But if things go positive, both countries will focus on domestic development and build up bilateral cooperation. He analyzed current US-China relationships in four dimensions, the first one is broad contact 370.000 Chinese students study in the US, and many tourists travel to the US from China every year. The second dimension is deep cooperation: not only in the economic sense, but also on climate and cyber security. The third dimension is substantial competition, such as Huawei competes with Apple. The last dimension is limited confrontation, such as issues on North Korea, South China Sea, Taiwan, and China-Japan relations. These five issues need to be managed carefully.

David Fuquet, Vice President, Centre European de Recherches Internationales et  Stratégiques in Brussels said that we are still puzzled to see where the new American policies come from and where they are heading. Some of Trump’s policy making could lead to more confrontation but there might be moderating forces as well. Almost all US presidents have some incidents with China so we shall have to see how Trump copes.

Dr. Fraser Cameron, Director, EU-Asia Centre, Brussels said that the US-China relationship is very broad and hugely important. Trump may be challenging China on many issues but the eventual relationship may be smoother than expected. He has to understand that if he starts a trade war then China can do tremendous damage to the US economy. Both will be focusing on their domestic problems this year. Trump will also be in Europe three times for the G7, G20 and NATO summits so he will not be isolationist. Something to watch will be Trump’s support for Brexit. The EU needs to stand firm against Anglo-Saxon attempts to destroy it. Finally, there was the question already being asked in Washington – would Trump make it through his first term?