The future of U.S.-China relations in light of domestic developments

A staff member prepares the table before talks during the first China-US judicial dialogue at the Rui'an hotel in Beijing, China, August 3, 2016. REUTERS/Thomas Peter - S1BETTHMUQAA
Editor's note:

The following are prepared remarks by Richard C. Bush for a special lecture hosted by The Korea Foundation for Advanced Studies on June 25, 2018.

My topic today is the future of U.S.-China relations in light of domestic developments, which we all understand to mean the rise of Xi Jinping and Donald Trump. This is a good way of framing the issue, because for both China and the United States, the power, personalities, and ambitions of these two leaders has an out-sized impact on their countries internally and on their bilateral relationship. My remarks would be very different if I were talking about U.S.-China relations in the era of Hu Jintao and Barack Obama, or if Hillary Clinton were in the White House today.

Indeed, Trump’s surprise electoral victory of November 2016 and Xi Jinping’s consolidation of his power at both the 19th Party Congress in October 2017 and the 13th National People’s Congress in March of this year were landmark events in the history of each country. Fears deepened that the relationship between these two big powers would change in fundamental ways. Those fears already existed, of course, but they became more pressing. The question now is how much change is coming, in what ways, and with what long-term effect. In this regard, of course, what has happened on the Korean Peninsula and what will happen here are important factors.

We know, however, that Xi and Trump are manifestations of much larger forces, and that the evolution of U.S.-China relations going forward will be a function of those forces. In particular, the relative shift in the comprehensive national power of the two countries and the aspirations of the two peoples regarding their country’s role in the world are relevant here. These are topics to which I will return.

I am conscious of the fact that today is the sixty-eighth anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War. That bloody and inconclusive conflict led the United States to adopt a more intrusive role in the inter-state relations of this region, a role that it has pursued more or less to the present day. Donald Trump’s long-standing policy preferences and his actions so far, particularly the Singapore summit, raise the question of whether we are already seeing a fundamental change in the U.S. strategy towards East Asia.

I should note that it is very difficult to write a speech about Donald Trump’s foreign policy. In my case, every time I thought I had finished the final draft, President Trump had a new Tweet or off-hand comment that changed things. But I will do my best.  I will present the historical background, describe how President Trump’s approach differs from his predecessor, the issue of American policy process, and scenarios for the future.

How Xi Jinping and Donald Trump are Similar and How They Differ

But first let me identify how Xi Jinping and Donald Trump are similar and how they are different. As for the similarities:

  • They each have grand and similar ambitions for their countries—the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation and making America great again.
  • They each have a high estimation of their own ability to lead their countries and confidence that they can overcome all obstacles.
  • Each is tapping into nationalist sentiment. Xi plays on the public’s desire to restore China to a global leadership role. Trump plays on the fears of white people about non-whites, both immigrants and native-born.
  • Each believes he is above the law and each in his own way. Xi has worked to ensure that the courts are subordinate to the Communist Party and to create extra-judicial mechanisms. Trump wants a law-enforcement system that is loyal to him.

Then there are the differences:

  • Xi basically accepts China’s political institutions. He believes they work and that they can be improved. Much of what he has done is to restore the Party’s leadership role. He is confident about his ability to work within China’s institutional structure. In this regard, he is very much like Deng Xiaoping and Liu Shaoqi, but like Liu, he wants the CCP to penetrate most sectors of Chinese society.
  • Donald Trump rejects the role of institutions and the limits they place on himself. He regularly criticizes America’s governing institutions and works to undermine them. In this sense, he is something of a Maoist.
  • Xi Jinping has a much more systematic vision of what he wishes to accomplish and how to get there. Trump thinks in terms of slogans and does not appreciate the contradictions among his various goals. Each leader appears to be a populist but Xi is a genuine populist and Trump is a sham populist.
  • Xi Jinping is very disciplined in his leadership style. Trump thrives on chaos, which he does everything to create, and he cares very much about his image and whether others respect him.

At least for foreigners, the big issue in Chinese domestic politics is the amendment to the Chinese constitution to eliminate term limits for the president and vice president, and specifically Xi’s motivation for initiating it. Did this move merely reflect personal ambition on Xi’s part—a desire to be the Mao Zedong of the 21st century—or did it reflect Xi’s belief that he needed more time to secure compliance with his reform goals? I happen to think it’s the second option—Xi needed more time.

The big question in American politics, at least for Americans, is whether Donald Trump will serve out his first term or be removed for a variety of crimes. Trump would like to negate the efforts of law enforcement to fully investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election and related crimes. Democrats will almost certainly regain the House in the 2018 election, which will allow them to begin impeachment proceedings. Whether they do so is up in the air. They are not so likely to regain control of the Senate, but that doesn’t matter since it requires two-thirds of the Senate to convict an impeached president. If Trump is to be removed, it will be because Republicans decide that he has to go. If, however, Trump survives the efforts to remove or constrain him, he may serve a full two terms, with untold consequences for America and its role in the world.

We can talk more about this in the question-and-answer period, if you like.

Historical Background

Let me turn now to U.S.-China relations. Before I talk about the present and the future, I must review—briefly—a couple of points about the past. I am an historian at heart.

China’s Past Long-Term Weakness

Americans do not always recognize or accept the profound sense of distress that Chinese leaders have felt about the decline that China suffered beginning in the first half of the nineteenth century and extending towards the end of the twentieth century. Failures of both domestic and external Chinese policy caused a century and a half of humiliation. The imperial, republican, and communist regimes tried different ways of reversing this decline and making China great again, but most failed. China’s weakness was manifest in different ways.

  • Japan’s invasion and occupation of China in the 1930s and 1940s was one.
  • The failure to provide for the basic human needs of the Chinese people in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s was another.
  • Yet another, one that is relevant to my topic, was China’s military weakness in East Asia in the four decades after the Korean War.

Specifically, until the last decade, China had had to accept the cruel reality that if there were ever a war with the United States, the People’s Liberation Army would have to defend the country at China’s coast. The ground forces had always been given priority in military budgets and the navy and air force were short-changed.

What created this cruel reality were the strategic decisions that the United States made in the decade after the end of World War II. After the humiliation of Pearl Harbor, Washington policy-makers decided that the best way to defend the American homeland was to deploy U.S. military forces in East Asia – on the first island chain and in Korea. The United States gained maximum strategic depth, leaving China with hardly any room for strategic depth at all.

China’s past decline has another consequence for its current and future behavior – a psychological consequence. All Chinese are deeply proud of China’s cultural heritage and past greatness. They are socialized into feeling the humiliation that their civilization was unable to meet the challenge of the West and resentment at the West for having posed the challenge. Yet China’s economic growth over the last almost forty years and its growing power lead Chinese today to be optimistic that their country and civilization can return to greatness. Recent success also fosters a strong sense of historic responsibility to do so. Thus, Xi Jinping’s call for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation merely reinforces strong feelings that already exist.

The Nixon Bargain

With this Chinese background in mind, let me identify what I regard as the seminal event in contemporary U.S.-China relations. That was the publication of an essay by Richard Nixon in October 1967 in Foreign Affairs on his views about U.S. foreign policy. In that essay, he said something rather startling for someone with his strong, anti-Communist background:

“Taking the long view, we simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies, cherish its hates and threaten its neighbors. The world cannot be safe until China changes. Thus our aim, to the extent that we can influence events, should be to induce change. The way to do this is to persuade China that it must change: that it cannot satisfy its imperial ambitions, and that its own national interest requires a turning away from foreign adventuring and a turning inward toward the solution of its own domestic problems.”

If we read this passage carefully and extrapolate a bit, we can perceive the offer of a bargain between China and the rest of the world. Note, first of all, that Nixon does not place the blame for China’s threatening behavior on its communist regime. Instead, aggression is the result of isolation. Nixon’s goal, therefore, was to bring about change in China’s policies, away from “imperial ambitions” and “foreign adventuring,” and toward addressing its domestic problems. Since China’s principal domestic problem then was economic, there is the implication in Nixon’s words that the United States would help facilitate China’s economic improvement. The bargain Nixon offered was, “If you, China, stop threatening your neighbors, we, the United States, will help grow your economy.”

Nixon, of course, had other reasons for seeking this breakthrough with China. He wanted leverage over the Soviet Union and North Vietnam. He wanted to distract people from the Vietnam War. He believed that opening China to international trade would benefit American farmers and manufacturers. But the core bargain was still strategic.

Nixon was not able to close this deal, but Jimmy Carter was. The normalization of diplomatic relations was quickly followed by the removal of obstacles to economic relations. American universities, the American market, and American technology became available to China. Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening up gradually changed the environment for trade with and investment from all capitalist countries. In effect, the United States plus countries of East Asia and Western Europe have helped China get strong again. As that process occurred, Beijing adopted an external policy summarized in the expression taoguang yanghui (hide one’s capacity and bide one’s time). In the meantime, Chinese society was transformed and East Asia was more peaceful.

Along the way, there were points when either the United States or China (or both) suddenly had doubts about the other’s intentions. The Tiananmen Massacre was one of these. The Taiwan Strait crisis of 1995-96 was another. The election of George W. Bush was yet another. But each time, doubts were assuaged and the basic bargain was reaffirmed.

There is an ongoing debate over the best word to describe the China policy of the United States. Most observers focus on the word “engagement” and there is now a narrative that engagement failed to bring about its goals, whatever those were. If I had to pick a term, I would say that the two countries have long had a pattern of interaction that we may call mutual strategic hedging. Neither side has fully trusted the intentions of the other. Each side has understood the benefits of mutual cooperation. But each also believed it had reason to worry that the other’s intentions were contrary to its fundamental interests. Each hoped for the best but prepared for the worst. Together, they tried to manage areas of friction, both to prevent them from spinning out of control and to alleviate the other’s worst fears. Within the context of strategic hedging, the core Nixonian bargain persisted: China was restrained in its regional behavior and it focused primarily on domestic development, with the help of Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and other Asian neighbors, plus America.

Over the past two decades, the issue that has both fostered fears in Beijing and Washington about each other’s intentions and the one that has offered genuine hopes for cooperation is North Korea. China did not regard North Korea as a front-burner issue in the 1990s, because it believed that Washington and Pyongyang were dealing with it bilaterally. George W. Bush provoked Beijing’s concern with his axis-of-evil remark and the invasion of Iraq. Cooperation was difficult because the two countries had different goals and different interests. But China then took the initiative to get control of the issue by convening, first, the three-party talks and, later, the six-party talks. After the beginning of the second Bush administration, Beijing and Washington’s interests became better aligned and progress occurred both bilaterally between the United States and North Korea and within the six-party talks. Mutual suspicion of intentions did not disappear, but the zone of cooperation was expanding, or so it seemed.

The Last Decade of U.S.-China Relations

Around ten years ago, however, things began to change, and the Nixonian bargain began to unravel. This was not a sudden reversal but the cumulative effect has been significant. Mutual hedging continued but in a more competitive, mistrustful, and less cooperative vein.

The first signal that something was not right was the Global Financial Crisis. Chinese leaders at the time thought that the United States had adopted policies that brought the crisis about: running large budget deficits through tax reductions and spending on two wars; keeping interest rates low; excessive deregulation of the financial industry; and so on. All of this created a credit bubble that, once it burst, had an immediate ripple effect. Arguably, America had failed to safeguard the international trade and financial systems into which China had integrated its own economy.

The second signal of change was an almost imperceptible evolution in China’s grand strategy. The logic of this evolution was indisputable. As I have noted, China’s greatest point of military vulnerability was to the east and the south, where America was strong. Understandably, China would prefer to have greater strategic depth to its east and south, so that if there ever was an East Asian war, it would not immediately be placed on the defensive. The growing political frictions over Taiwan revealed that war was not inconceivable.

In the late 1990s, therefore, the PLA began to acquire the air and naval capabilities necessary to expand strategic depth. The initial motivation was to prepare for a Taiwan contingency, but the effort broadened to a regional scope thereafter. The goal, simply, was to establish a stronger Chinese presence within the First Island Chain. The frictions in the East and South China Seas that began about a decade ago have been the strongest evidence of this ambition, so far.

I have already noted the problem with this Chinese strategic shift. The U.S. Navy and Air Force had long since established their own presence within the First Island Chain, to be joined more recently by the Japanese navy and air force. China’s expansion into this occupied space made frictions almost inevitable, and they were frictions borne out of interaction of a strategic character.

The third signal of change to the Nixonian bargain had to do with economic policy. As the reform and opening-up policy matured, it created quite a favorable environment for American, Japanese, Taiwanese, Hong Kong, and European investors. But over the past six or eight years, the China business environment has grown more restrictive. The terms and conditions for investors have deteriorated. This is most obvious in the Chinese demands that foreign corporations transfer more of their sensitive technology to Chinese partners than before. Protection of intellectual property remains weak, and cyber-theft of that intellectual property has grown. Some sectors of the economy remain out of bounds to foreign involvement and competition. Indigenous innovation became a priority. It is not an exaggeration to say that China was moving towards a mercantilist economy and industrial policy. Moreover, this trend appeared to occur at the same time that princelings of the Chinese Communist Party assumed a more prominent role as leaders of state-owned enterprises, providing them with political protection. Xi Jinping proposed reforms in 2013 that would have reduced the power of state-owned enterprises, but they never got implemented.

The fourth signal of a different China was one of style. This was captured in the rebuke that then-foreign minister Yang Jiechi made to his Southeast Asian counterparts at the 2010 ASEAN Regional Forum.  ASEAN countries had criticized China’s behavior in the South China Sea, and Yang retorted: “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.” The implication was that small countries in East Asia should not challenge China.

More generally this aggressiveness was manifest in a greater willingness to use economic leverage and sanctions to get neighbors to abandon policies that China did not like. South Korea is a prime example of this, concerning the deployment of THAAD, where China made a deliberate choice to take a hard line. But it is not the only one. More skillful have been China’s “gray-zone” tactics in the East and South China Seas, where it acts coercively but not violently, and never to the point that tough counter-measures are clearly warranted. Taiwan has also been a target.

You are probably expecting me to add a fifth signal, termed “China’s Challenge to the Liberal International Order.” I’m going to spare you that discussion partly because of problems I have with the words “order” and “liberal”—especially “liberal”—but also because I believe that over the past thirty-plus years China has actually benefited from what passes for an “order” and now seeks to improve it, not destroy it.

The Shift in Relative Power

In the last decade, therefore there has been a relative shift in power between the United States and China, and in the exercise of power. That shift stimulated a vigorous discussion of its implications, on which I should make a couple of comments.

Of course, there are scholars and statesmen much smarter than I on this subject, whether it is power shifts in general or the one involving the United States and China in particular. Paul Kennedy and Graham Allison come to mind. Actually, I think that Kennedy is more useful than Allison in the current context. I am not convinced by the idea of a recurring Thucydides Trap that usually leads a rising power and the established power into war. Thucydides didn’t necessarily mean what we think he meant, and we tend to ignore what he wrote about the role of allies in sucking greater powers into conflict. Kennedy’s emphasis on the tendency of the established power to become over-extended is more telling.

I would only make a few bullet points here. We can discuss them more in the Q&A if you want.

  • There is nothing mechanistic in the outcome of a relative shift in power from an established power to a rising power. This interaction involves choices by each regarding how to use the power available.
    • The United States had the world’s largest economy from the 1870s but it was reluctant to use that power outside the Western Hemisphere until World War II and afterwards.
    • China has acted more assertively in the last decade more because its perceptions of the power of the United States and others and not because of the reality.
  • Over-extension by the established power is often the result of bad choices. The worst choice that the United States made in recent years was to wage war on Iraq in 2003 without carefully considering the consequences of our invasion.
  • Over-extended countries do try to execute tactical retrenchments. Indeed, the Nixon opening to China was just such an adjustment after Vietnam. Barack Obama sought during his second term to extricate the United States from expeditionary warfare in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. My own belief is that one reason he did so was to focus on East Asia and the revival of China as a great power.
  • Even in a time of power transition, it is not impossible for the rising power and the established power to create zones of cooperation to reduce the chances of conflict. Successive U.S. administrations have tried to do that with China.
  • Finally, Donald Trump has eliminated important areas of U.S.-China cooperation and, I think, gone too far in reducing the American role in the world.

Donald Trump and China

Turning now to Trump, the last two years have been full of surprises in U.S.-China relations. First was the success that Donald Trump had during the campaign in targeting China as the source of America’s economic malaise. Then there was his suggestion that he might abandon our one-China policy. Then there was the Mar-A-Lago summit, which produced an unexpectedly good personal relationship between President Trump and President Xi. That in turn brought about exceptional collaboration on North Korea in responding to a series of missile and nuclear tests. The record on global cooperation was not perfect, however. Fulfilling campaign promises, Trump pulled out of the climate change agreement and the Iran agreement. That is, he reduced the zone of U.S.-China cooperation.

Just as seriously, Trump threatened to do great damage to the economic relationship between the world’s two largest economies. Actually, officials in his administration have been divided on what goals Washington should pursue. One faction wants incremental gains on market access and reduction of the trade deficit. The other seeks a radical overhaul of China’s economic structure and policies and a return of manufacturing supply chains to the United States. Lingering like a dark cloud over all of this is Donald Trump’s campaign pledge of a big increase in tariffs on Chinese goods—and he does care about fulfilling his campaign promises. One round of tariff cuts will go into effect on July 6th, and others are threatened. How much the administration will achieve on the goal of insulating the U.S. economy from predatory Chinese behavior remains uncertain.

Two other things were going on here. The first was the growing belief in the Trump administration that threats and bullying work with China, and that a Chinese fear of a trade war and the attendant domestic economic difficulties can elicit concessions, on economics but also on North Korea.

Second, there emerged a distinctly dark view within the administration of Chinese intentions, as conveyed in a series of authoritative reports. For example, the National Security Strategy, written by the National Security Council Staff, said that “China is a revisionist power, intent on displacing the United States from East Asia.” The National Defense Strategy, written in the Pentagon, made a similar assertion.

In contrast to this negative approach to China, some of President Trump’s stated views are both curious and confusing. There have been times, such as his 2018 State of the Union address, when he reflects the formulation in the National Security Strategy: “Around the world, we face rogue regimes, terrorist groups, and rivals like China and Russia that challenge our interests, our economy, and our values. In confronting these horrible dangers, we know that weakness is the surest path to conflict, and unmatched power is the surest means to our true and great defense.” When Trump talks about U.S.-China economic relations, there is a similarly adversarial tone.

But at other times, Trump’s words could very well have come out of the mouth of Barack Obama or Bill Clinton. At the time of his Beijing summit last November, he said:

“There can be no more important subject than China-U.S. relation.  We have, between us . . . a capacity to resolve world problems for many, many years to come.”

As an aside, I will tell you that I will refrain from any discussion of the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” because the Trump administration hasn’t clearly explained what it is. Actually, I believe that the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” is probably President Obama’s “rebalance to Asia” with a different name.

Returning to the administration’s two views of U.S.-China relations, the policy implications of them are rather profound. If the United States believes that China is an existential threat, then its only two options are appeasement or resisting China. Fighting back is what much of the administration would like to do, even though it doesn’t necessarily know how to do it. That, it seems, requires us to increase the military power we project to East and South Asia. Mutual accommodation would be impossible.

If, on the other hand, Washington believes that cooperation with China and management of our many differences is still worth a try, it dictates a more skillful and considered policy—essentially a hedging strategy where the U.S. hopes for the best, plans for the worst, and tries to maintain a favorable balance between the two.

Obviously, how the United States and China interact going forward—existential struggle vs. strategic hedging, etc.—has profound implications for the allies and friends of America in East Asia. Most of them have come to rely on China for their prosperity and on the United States for security. That has been a successful strategy, and the last thing these countries would want is to have to make a choice between Beijing and Washington. There is no guarantee that an American hedging strategy will allow our friends to avoid a choice. An existential struggle puts them in a tough spot. So does an American failure to take account of their interests in formulating our own policy.

To conclude this discussion of current American and Chinese policy towards each other, I would only observe that China has a clear sense of its goals and is pursuing those goals with vigor. That is a good position for a rising or reviving power to be in. The United States, on the other hand, seems confused about its objectives and erratic in their pursuit. That is not a good position for a defender of the status quo to find itself.


We see divided U.S. policy at play when it comes to Taiwan, about which I wish to say a few words.

The 2016 victory of the Democratic Progressive Party under Tsai Ing-wen raised concerns that cross-Strait relations would deteriorate again and undermine Washington’s interest in peace and stability.

So far, that hasn’t happened. Tsai Ing-wen has carried out her campaign pledge to maintain the status quo and has resisted pressures from her more radical base to challenge China. China has refused to engage Tsai even though she opened the door for mutual trust-building. My guess is that Beijing did not wish to legitimize Tsai and her party. It believes that time is on its side and wants to wait for the return to power of a Taiwan leader who will be more compliant.

Meanwhile, within the Trump camp, there are at least three different tendencies when it comes to Taiwan policy.

One policy tendency is to regard Taiwan as a strategic asset in America’s contest for power with China. That follows naturally from the assessment of China’s intentions in some policy documents—that China is a revisionist power that wants to drive the United States from East Asia. If the United States is to oppose that trend, therefore, we should strengthen relations with Taiwan in all respects and help it resist Chinese pressure. The Defense Department, the State Department, and Taiwan’s supporters in Congress are advocates of this approach.

Note that if this approach is to be effective, the administration needs to take steps that are truly effective in inducing restraint by China and in boosting Taiwan’s confidence in an enduring way. Transient, symbolic gestures aren’t enough.

The second tendency in the administration’s Taiwan policy focuses solely on U.S.-Taiwan economic relations. The Trump administration has refused to open negotiations on matters of interest to Taiwan, such as a free trade agreement or an investment agreement, until Taiwan makes good on its prior commitments regarding market access for beef and pork. Taiwan should carry out those commitments, but Taiwan pork farmers are a key political force on the island. There is no reason to insist that the Taiwan government make politically difficult concessions before we begin to talk about much more important issues.

The administration’s third policy tendency is to treat Taiwan as a bargaining chip in the conduct of its relations with China. That is, the United States might sacrifice Taiwan’s interests in order to get concessions from China on matters of importance to us. Trade and North Korea are two examples of such issues. A variant of this approach is that Washington should refrain from taking positive steps towards Taiwan out of fear that that they would make China unhappy and cause it not to cooperate with us on issues like North Korea. President Trump appears to be the person taking this approach.

I would only note that the three policy tendencies of the Trump camp are mutually contradictory. If Taiwan is truly a strategic asset, then Washington should not sacrifice its interests or use it as a bargaining chip. Instead of playing hardball on trade issues, it should work to help strengthen Taiwan’s economy by improving our economic relationship.

The Issue of Process

A significant reason for the confusion in Trump administration policy is the unorthodox policy process that produces U.S. statements and actions.

The decision-making process that was established after World War II was:

  • Inclusive: it gave relevant actors a say in both the formulation and implementation of policy on all major decisions;
  • Bottom-up: starting with mid-level policy officials, who had the most experience and expertise, to the deputies of agencies and to the heads of agencies and the president; and
  • Institutionalized: the National Security Council managed coordination through an established meeting structure.

Did this system always work as designed to yield choices that best reflected the national interests? No. The Vietnam and Iraq Wars are major cases in point. The participants in the process did not always play by the rules. Henry Kissinger was a culprit here, operating with excessive secrecy. But these are actually exceptions that prove the value of an institutionalized system.

The Trump administration has abandoned this policy process for the most part. It probably is employed sometimes. But it is impossible to know from the outside whether U.S. policy actions are the result of this process or not. And because the mechanism that used to foster a coherent American policy towards China, North Korea, and other places is not working, individual agencies tend to do their own thing.

Compounding this significant change are other problems:

  • First, senior policy positions at upper and middle levels of the bureaucracy remain unfilled.
  • Second, the administration has inflicted serious budget cuts on the State Department and the Agency for International Development.
  • Third, on some issues at least, back channels have become the main way the White House conducts diplomacy. The best example is U.S.-China relations.
  • Fourth, policy expertise is denigrated rather than respected, which can produce mistakes.
  • Finally, there is the dominating and disruptive presence of President Trump himself. He pits one group of advisers against another. He has no sense of message discipline. And he often evaluates his performance based on commentary by media pundits.

But my main point here is that if the content of U.S. policy seems incoherent, that is often because the policy process is incoherent. A coherent policy process does not necessarily lead to sound policy, but when an incoherent process produces coherent policy, it’s more by luck than design.

The Kim-Trump Summit

Now a few words on the Kim-Trump Summit.

Originally, Trump’s expectations for this meeting were high but they declined as we got closer to June 12th. Administration officials realized that if they wanted true denuclearization, there would have to be many meetings to work out the details. Experts could have told them that, based on the experience of previous administrations. Still, I don’t think that President Trump was that focused on the substance of U.S.-North Korea relations. What always mattered to him was the show, the strengthening of his positive self-image, and his being able to claim that he is more capable than his predecessors, whether that is true or not.

I share the view of many American specialists that President Trump was more accommodating to Kim Jong Un than the other way round. As time goes on, we will gain a better understanding of what happened in Singapore, but as of right now it appears that Mr. Trump accepted much of the North Korean narrative that the United States was at least partially responsible for tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Of course, the mainstream view in the United States is that North Korea’s ambition to be able to hit the continental United States with nuclear weapons was fundamentally destabilizing. Trump’s view of U.S.-ROK military exercises as “provocative” and expensive is the most obvious example of this accommodation. President Trump’s subsequent statement that North Korea is no longer a nuclear threat is flat-out wrong.

Based at least on publicly available information, all Kim Jong Un offered in return was a reaffirmation of the North Korean commitment to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” which, as we know, is not necessarily the same as the denuclearization of North Korea. Also, “work toward” is not exactly the same as “achieve.”

Not unexpectedly, a lot of work will be needed to fill out the details of the Kim-Trump commitments, and even to determine whether there is really much common ground. I personally am skeptical that the two sides will reach any full agreement, since, in my view, the goals of Washington and Pyongyang are mutually contradictory. According to Secretary of State Pompeo, the United States wants the complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea, but North Korea has said that it will keep its nuclear weapons and that other countries must accept that. If I am correct that a mutually acceptable outcome is highly unlikely, we are likely to see a revival of “maximum pressure,” tensions, threats, and testing by North Korea.

So much for the Singapore meeting. In addition, we need to consider the possibility that a change may be occurring when it comes to U.S.-China cooperation regarding the Korean Peninsula, which, as I have said, is the most obvious example of bilateral cooperation.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that U.S.-China cooperation regarding the Korean Peninsula will continue. For Donald Trump, energizing Xi Jinping on North Korea has been one of his most constructive and successful foreign-policy ventures. One can argue that however much Seoul and Pyongyang can create more room to maneuver for themselves, U.S.-China cooperation regarding the Korean Peninsula will continue to be necessary in order to achieve a good outcome.

However, for the first time, and in part because of recent Korean developments, we cannot rule out the possibility that the goals of Washington and Beijing are changing in an unprecedented ways.

On the one hand, China has been signaling for some time that it would prefer that Asian countries take more responsibility for security in this region. By implication, it wishes to diminish the significant role of the United States. The Trump administration’s security and defense policy documents state clearly that China wants to drive the Unites States out of East Asia. And one can speculate that China regards President Moon Jae-In’s policies as consistent with the goal of reducing American regional influence.

On the other hand, whatever U.S. policy documents say, we should keep in mind that for over thirty years, Donald Trump has believed, rightly or wrongly, that our allies have been free-riding on the U.S. commitment to their defense and the forward deployment of our armed forces. A recent article in the Washington Post suggested that his view really hasn’t changed and that he might favor a reduction of the U.S. role in East Asia—a view, by the way that is outside the American mainstream.

Scenarios for the Future

To sum up to this point, U.S.-China relations are today not as bad as one might have expected based on what Donald Trump said during the campaign. We have not had an all-out trade war. The United States did not inflict a preventive strike on North Korea. The U.S.’s one-China policy is still operative. Stock markets around the world remain fairly stable, so far. One reason for these better-than-expected results is that at least some people in the Trump administration have been able, it appears, to get their colleagues and the president to consider the consequences of radical actions. We can only hope that the U.S. decision-making system becomes more rational and returns to its past norms.

Still, we must all think about the longer-term issue, that is, what is going to happen in the competition for power and influence between China and the United States in East Asia? To go back to my historical preview, can the Nixon bargain that worked more or less up until the end of the last decade be revived? The answer to that question will have profound implications for the interests of all the other countries in the region.

There are at least four fairly coherent schools of thought in the United States on how to re-design our foreign and national security strategy to cope with a China that is challenging us in East Asia and more broadly.

Note that I use the word “coherent.” I do so to contrast with the incoherent approach that the Trump administration has taken. I would hope that whatever view is adopted should avoid war, foster regional and global stability, reassure our friends and allies, and receive the requisite resources. Based on some of these criteria, I believe that some of these approaches have problems.

The first school of thought is that the United States should adopt some type of off-shore balancing. This would allow the U.S. to better align our commitments with our actual resources, but remain prepared to step in to protect truly vital interests, however those are defined. The model for this approach is probably Great Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries.

I am skeptical of this approach for practical and policy reasons. As a matter of policy, I fear that our allies would conclude that our credibility no longer counts for anything. As a practical matter, if the United States is not constantly present in the first island chain, including the Korean Peninsula, we are too far away to intervene quickly. Even with those forward deployments, we have struggled with how to address China’s grey-zone activities. It’s hard therefore to see how offshore balancing doesn’t equate with strategic withdrawal.

But note that Donald Trump’s statements about Asia during the campaign are simplistically similar to this mindset: retreating from trade liberalization, treating alliances as mercenary propositions, and throwing in threats to North Korea for good measure. Even more concerning, we sometimes see hints that strategic withdrawal may be exactly what President Trump would like to execute.

The second school of thought is to anchor our strategy in our relationship with China, and to do so through some sort of grand bargain. Henry Kissinger and Graham Allison embody this school of thought, and believe that the sooner we cut this deal, the better. I dislike this approach because it ignores the interests of our best friends in the region, who would be quite unhappy with a G-2 arrangement. It would probably be done in secret and include cutting a bad deal on Taiwan.

The third school of thought starts from the premise that the United States is in an existential competition with China, to the extent that meaningful coexistence is impossible. This school would mobilize all the instruments of national power in response. This is essentially a bipolar, containment approach. I would guess that few of our friends and allies in the region would share this view, if only because good relations with China contribute to their prosperity. The U.S. would in effect be forcing them to choose. To be sure, we are in a competition for influence with China, but to conclude that containment is the best way to compete is to go beyond either our ability or will to respond.

The fourth school of thought is a mixed approach that frankly is not that far from where we have been before, but it may be the best we have.

  • This approach starts with Asia as a whole, with our alliances and partnerships as the anchor.
  • It includes engagement with China where that is possible, but also firmness where necessary.
  • It depends on forward deployment broadly defined—not only militarily but also by economic and diplomatic means.
  • It assumes that there are areas in which America and China can cooperate, and we should maximize those areas because they will balance areas of competition.
  • It’s an approach that requires an ability to discriminate among different points of friction and calibrate how much firmness and accommodation is required on each.
  • Concerning North Korea, it recognizes that, unless there is a genuine de-nuclearization deal, for the foreseeable future the only options that we have are containment and appeasement (I prefer containment).

This is basically a return to strategic hedging. It has a “same old, same old” quality to it, and so is boring compared to its dramatic alternatives. But it is not a static approach and is realistic about how to address China’s revival as a great power. Of course, the execution of this approach requires adequate resources, which, given our budget politics, are not certain.

Ultimately, if U.S. allies and partners are to preserve their freedom of choice, they will have to ensure that they are strong and bold enough to resist Chinese pressure, as South Korea has sought to do regarding deployment of THAAD. Just as important, the United States needs a clear understanding of the dynamics of this region and a coherent strategy for meeting the challenges we face, along with firm and steady implementation.

As I said before, Xi Jinping and China’s leadership know what they want. The Trump administration wants several things concerning China but it is not so clear whether it knows how to secure them in an integrated way. Nor is it clear that the administration has a good sense of what China wants.

But ultimately, what China can achieve will depend on how the United States responds. Our response must be based on our national interest and a clear vision for a peaceful and stable Asia. We must craft and pursue this vision not only for our own sake and for our allies and partners, but also for China’s sake. Given the options available to the United States for meeting the challenge of a reviving China, it’s easy to see how some approaches will produce results in the end that will be bad for all concerned. It’s not so easy—but not impossible—to find a way forward that has a good result.