Stanford University

Stanford experts debate future of U.S.-China relationship

The relationship between the U.S. and China has been recently put in the spotlight after President-elect Donald Trump reportedly talked to the president of Taiwan, aggravating some Chinese leaders.

Two Stanford experts talked with Stanford Report about what the future holds for U.S.-China relations.

Nicholas Hope is the former director of the Stanford Center for International Development; he has directed the Center’s China research program since 1998.

Admiral Gary Roughead is the Robert and Marion Oster Distinguished Military Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford. He served as the 29th chief of naval operations after holding six operational commands and is one of only two officers in the navy’s history to have commanded both the Atlantic and Pacific fleets.

How might the election of Donald Trump change the U.S.-China relationship?

Chess pieces with American and Chinese flags

Stanford experts Nicholas Hope and Gary Roughead analyze the next administration’s possible moves and countermoves with China. (Image credit: avdeev707 / Getty Images)

Hope: The future of the relationship is, in a word, unpredictable. Certainly, a lot of pre-election rhetoric – the anti-trade rhetoric from both candidates – pointed toward the relationship with China potentially getting rockier, certainly so for Trump, who made pretty outrageous statements about trade.

Roughead: From my perspective, it’s a bit too early to say how that relationship will shape up. Clearly the early comments that were made and Trump’s phone call with Taiwan really put the relationship in the spotlight. The new administration is still building its team, and his national security leadership has yet to set an approach and priorities and to formulate policies.   I think it will take some time until we see a more coherent approach that highlights the policies that will be put in place when it comes to U.S.-China relations. Trump’s picks for state, commerce and defense positions are key players here.

China appeared upset after Trump talked to Taiwan’s leader, which was the first time a U.S. president or president-elect has had contact with Taiwan’s leadership since 1979. Why is Taiwan a sensitive subject for China?

Hope: I can’t help but feel that Trump is listening to the wrong Republican advisers on this issue. His initial discussion with China’s president, Xi Jinping, was seen as positive. But then he muddied the water with his conversation with Taiwan’s president. Anybody who deals with China recognizes that all Chinese regard Taiwan as an integral part of their country. There is a visceral reaction even at the thought that an external agent would intervene between Taiwan and China. My view is that if you want to get into a shooting war with China, you just have to continue to promote the idea of Taiwanese independence.

Roughead: Until Trump’s phone call Taiwan was not that prominent in U.S. discourse, but as an issue it has always been there, it’s always been important to China. Mention Taiwan in China or to a Chinese delegation and you’re off to the races. The view that Taiwan is an integral part of China is an absolutely inflexible position on the part of the People’s Republic of China.

Trump also recently suggested possibly moving away from the long-standing American position that Taiwan is part of “one China.” Why has this policy existed and what could happen if the policy is changed?

Hope: Now, there is real concern in China about the state of the ”one China” policy, which was the basis for the Nixon-Kissinger recognition of the People’s Republic of China in the 1970s. The policy was created to promote peace and its aim was to minimize the possibility of a military conflict between Taiwan and China. This policy enabled China and the U.S. to develop peaceful and constructive relations, despite periodic tensions, over ensuing decades. If that policy is abandoned, Chinese- U.S. relations could be damaged irretrievably. Whether or not that could provoke a war is hard to say, but why would you risk it?

Roughead: Moving away from that policy would be an unacceptable turn of events for China. It would fundamentally challenge China’s view of the integrity of the state and would be interpreted as the U.S. trying to tear apart the fabric of the “one China’ policy that has been maintained for decades.

Are these recent developments an attempt by Trump to address trade issues between the U.S. and China, which he has talked about?

Hope: If that’s Trump’s intention, he is foolish. A trade war would be so damaging for everybody that I have to believe his suggestions about imposing punitive tariffs on Chinese goods and tearing up the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) have to be bluster. Taiwan is not a chess piece; the Chinese view it as a sacred part of the motherland. They’re not going to barter that position for concessions on trade. If that is what the transition team is thinking, then they delude themselves. They should be heeding George Shultz’s wise injunction from an earlier Republican administration: “one country; peaceful means.”

Roughead: It’s possible that by putting this on the table it was a not-so-subtle signal that the relationship between the two countries could potentially be different. Is Taiwan a bargaining chip? Only the president-elect and his team know that. If Taiwan was to be used as a chess piece as far as trade, it will be a much bigger issue for China than just trade.

What are the biggest challenges between China and the U.S.?

Hope: The history of the 21st century is going to be determined by whether China and the U.S. develop a cooperative relationship for the good of us all or whether they don’t. They don’t have to become great friends, but they have to recognize and respect each other’s interests and be willing to compromise.For a good part of the past 70 years, the U.S. drove the bus. What was good for the U.S. was presumed to be good for everybody else in the non-Communist world. That’s changing. Going forward, China will not accept the U.S. telling it what to do. In all probability the Russians and many other countries won’t either. It’s up to the U.S. to exercise leadership in a way that promotes a peaceful, productive world.

Roughead: It’s the most strategic issue for the U.S.: Who will be the dominant power in Asia and therefore what rule set will be in place? It’s the answer that cuts across economics and security in the region and globally. How do you deal with the intertwined economic interests of both of our countries? How do these two powers – and you have to recognize China as a significant power in Asia – deal with one another? How do we continue to benefit one another? Another aspect important to consider is the growth of Chinese military capabilities over the past two decades. In fact, by 2020 they’re projected to have the second largest Navy in the world, and by 2030 they’ll be as big as us. The strategic relationship between China and Russia is also an important point. It could make the security environment a lot more complex.

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