Foreign Affairs

Two gorillas in the room: China and Trump

American strategic studies and international relations experts at a conference on New Zealand-United States relations were taken aback by how optimistic their Kiwi counterparts are about China. 

“I think there was perhaps a bit of a surprise about the degree of divergence,” said Dr Amy Searight, Senior Adviser and Director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington DC, which is the world’s number one-ranked think tank for defence and co-hosted the conference in Auckland with Victoria University of Wellington’s Centre for Strategic Studies. 

“Certainly the initial discussions we had about China revealed quite different conceptualisations of China’s role and what kind of risk or opportunity China posed,” said Searight in a public panel discussion about some of the themes of the conference.  

Searight, who before joining CSIS was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for South and Southeast Asia at the US Department of Defence, told the audience New Zealanders at the conference had no “appetite to want to choose between the close relationship between the United States and the close relationship with China. There was relative optimism about China’s trajectory and the role it’s playing in the region and globally. And just a sense that there wasn’t really trade-offs that had to be grappled with”. 

For their part, said Searight, New Zealanders were surprised by how harshly American conference participants viewed China “and how hawkish and pessimistic [we were] about China’s trajectory and the importance of addressing that issue head on”. 

Several New Zealanders had said they knew there were a lot of ‘hawks’ on China in Washington but hadn’t expected such unanimity. 

However, said Searight, by the end of President Barack Obama’s administration there had been a significant shift in Washington’s thinking about China. 

Under President George W Bush and initially under Obama there was a broad mainstream consensus that China was a rising power and should be brought into “the international regimes that help govern economics and security affairs, and over time China would then become a responsible stakeholder”. 

However, “Chinese behaviour, particularly in the South China Sea but also in public domains like cyber and economics, [meant] there was a growing frustration and a concern and a sense that China was actually moving in a different direction than what was hoped and so it had to be addressed directly in order to maintain [the rules-based international order]; that there was growing evidence [Chinese President] Xi Jinping wanted to chip away at that and build up an order that would push the United States out of the region a little bit and an order that was very China-centric and geared toward deference to China and China’s interest, rather than a more open and inclusive transparent multilateral order”. 

If during the Auckland conference China was one of the “gorillas in the room” — or in this case a dragon, said Searight — another was US President Donald Trump. 

Something similar to Trump’s tariffs and other tough measures toward China would have been likely even under a Hillary Clinton Democratic administration, said Searight. 

“Because the business community was growing increasingly frustrated with China, so there was a growing consensus something had to be done to push China to make some changes. Otherwise we will soon be living in a world where there is no American businesses operating in China and they will be shutting out all kind of American technology, innovation and investment. 

“There’s a consensus about that. The way Trump has gone about it, however, is not necessarily the smartest way. There’s not been a real attempt to bring others on board in this effort. If you’re going to try to really go after China and try to find ways to change China’s behaviour it would make sense to get a lot of your friends and partners, your economic allies, on board. TPP [the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade agreement] would be one way but another way would be to coordinate a joint approach through the WTO [World Trade Organisation] or some other ways to make sure it’s not just America alone going after China and having all this collateral damage to allies, friends and partners.” 

Searight was joined for the panel discussion by colleagues Dr Zack Cooper, a former White House and Pentagon staff member and a Senior Fellow for Asian Security at CSIS, and Andrew Shearer, a former National Security Adviser to Australian prime ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott and Senior Adviser on Asia Pacific Security and Director of the Alliances and American Leadership Project at CSIS. 

A conference participant had talked about Trump Derangement Syndrome, or TDS, said Shearer. 

“I think one of the things I’ve tried to do in the last couple of years as I’ve come to make sense of this along with everyone else is to avoid TDS. Because TDS doesn’t really help. You can run around waving your hands and pronouncing that the world’s about to end; it probably isn’t if you take a longer historical sweep.” 

Alongside “deeply disquieting” aspects of Trump’s temperament and things that make “allies of the United States, partners of the United States, longstanding friends like New Zealand, uncomfortable” are elements of deep continuity, he said. 

A theme that came out strongly from the conference was that “there’s much more to America than the president, whoever the president is. It’s a system of checks and balances. There’s a Congress with strong interests in foreign policy and national security, there’s a vast population, a whole range of different views”. 

Civil society and the private sector play a role, said Shearer. “We shouldn’t just think constantly of government-to-government, of executive-to-executive relations; there’s a whole lot of strands to this relationship, there’s a whole lot of opportunities to work closely together, whether it is to increase prosperity, jobs, growth for our future populations or security of the region”. 

It is important not to conflate TPP “with actual trade and investment”, he said. “The United States remains a huge economic presence in the region, investment wise, in terms of driving innovation, technology, etcetera, etcetera, and trade”. 

Cooper pointed out there is a lot of government cooperation that can happen below the federal level. For instance, California is going ahead with fulfilling US obligations under the Paris climate change agreement, and is not the only state to do so. 

At the same time, the US needs “friends like New Zealand to sometimes say hard truths to us about what they want us to stand for and about what we have stood for in the past and what we should stand for in the future. I know those may be difficult conversations but I think they’re important and I think that’s part of what makes our relationship important and so I hope friends here will be willing to say things even if they’re tough and they may not be received well at the minute. We will remember you were there and reminded us who we were and who we are and who we should be”. 

Making a similar point later, Searight said “the best way New Zealand can express concern with the United States is to take action in a way that really signals that New Zealand is going to continue to work with other, likeminded countries to uphold the values we all hold dear. TPP-11 is a perfect example of that. You go launch TPP without the United States and leave the door open for the United States to join in the future. But there are a lot of other areas you can think about. For example, if the Trump administration is not going to trumpet human rights and democratic norms, New Zealand could raise its voice even more, working with Australia, Japan and other countries in regional fora or elsewhere to really make clear that ‘even if the United States is temporarily absent we’re going to uphold these norms and these principles’.” 

As part of the panel discussion, audience members were polled on a number of key questions. 

One was which would be the most powerful country in Asia in 10 years’ time: 74 percent said China, 13 percent said the US, eight percent said India, and Japan and Indonesia each received two percent. 

At a similar event in Sydney, India was not as high as China but “at least in the 20s or 30s”, said Searight. 

Another question was about the largest threat to New Zealand interests in Asia today: 43 percent said regional instability, 26 percent said climate change, 16 percent said US disengagement, nine percent said China’s rise and six percent said North Korea’s nuclear programme. 

“I think this is a fascinating answer,” said Cooper. “If you asked this question in the United States, I’m quite sure the answer you would get would be almost the exact reverse of this. The top answer would probably be China but might be North Korea. It would certainly be one of those two. I bet those would account for 70 percent of the responses. The next response would probably be United States disengagement or climate change and then general regional instability would be somewhere way down the list. 

“This goes to some of the challenges we have as partners pushing forward. There are areas where we’re prioritising different things. I don’t think that means we want different outcomes. I think in general our people want the same outcomes. But the priority we’re going to put on these issues is going to be quite different.” 

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