US President Donald Trump met with military advisers to discuss response to North Korea's nuclear bomb test on September 3, 2017. Photo: Reuters
US President Donald Trump met with military advisers to discuss response to North Korea's nuclear bomb test on September 3, 2017. Photo: Reuters

If the prevailing thesis was that the US President Donald Trump harbored a secret project to forgive Russia and punish China, the drift of things points in a contrarian direction.

Trump’s project increasingly looks like pandering Russia’s superpower vanities while engaging China substantively. The signs are that on China, Trump is putting behind his awkward behavior as president-elect.

One interesting signal is the toning down of rhetoric on South China Sea by Rex Tillerson. Tillerson had made some very abrasive remarks regarding China during the hearings in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He appeared to advocate a blockade of Beijing’s artificial islands in the South China Sea.

There was always a contrived look about Tillerson’s extreme views, engendering a suspicion that they were prompted by an urge to be ‘hawkish’ in front of the senate committee. (Tillerson also said strange things about Russia ties such as that he’d recommend arming Kiev to defend against Russia, and that Crimea was simply an act of land grab.)

That suspicion is borne out by a leaked document that is in the nature of a series of written responses by Tillerson to questions by Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin who is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. According to a report by Japan Times newspaper, Tillerson wrote in the document:

“China cannot be allowed to use its artificial islands to coerce its neighbors or limit freedom of navigation or overflight in the South China Sea. The United States will uphold freedom of navigation and overflight by continuing to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows.”

This is indeed a significant toning down of his stern remarks at the hearing. In the leaked document, Tillerson voiced the need for the United States and its allies to be able to prevent Chinese access to the islets in the event of a “contingency.” He wrote,

“If a contingency occurs, the United States and its allies and partners must be capable of limiting China’s access to and use of its artificial islands to pose a threat to the United States or its allies and partners … The United States must be willing to accept risk if it is to deter further destabilizing actions and reassure allies and partners that the United States will stand with them in upholding international rules and norms.”

Without doubt, Tillerson has edged away from the threat of blockade in peace time against China’s man-made islands. Again, Tillerson wrote: “I intend to support the One China policy. The people of Taiwan are friends of the United States and should not be treated as a bargaining chip. The U.S. commitment to Taiwan is both a legal commitment and a moral imperative.”

Clearly, a load of doomsday predictions of a war between US and China falls by the wayside. To be sure, US Defense Secretary James Mattis during his visit to Japan last week underscored that solution to the South China Sea has to be found on the diplomatic track and he did not “see any need for dramatic military moves at all.”

Interestingly, the state-owned newspaper China Daily in an editorial on Tuesday promptly welcomed Mattis’ remark, calling it a “mind-soothing pill.” It said, “Mattis has inspired optimism here (in Beijing) that things may not be as bad as previously portrayed.” The editorial cautiously added, “By and large, Trump’s China policy as seen from Mattis’ words is hence being read as “basically in conformity with that of Obama’s”. Trump’s demonstrated enthusiasm for erasing his predecessor’s legacies notwithstanding, the no-nonsense style Mattis debuted thus far did provide the dose of predictability the bilateral relationship badly needs.”

A similar upbeat tone is also evident in Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s optimistic remarks about the prospects of China-US relations, which he made during a trip to Canberra on Tuesday. Notably, Wang said the US and China have begun seeing “converging interests”, notwithstanding the “tough comments made by some” in Washington in the recent past.

Meanwhile, Trump also has deployed a secret weapon to mend fences with Beijing. His five-year old granddaughter Arabella Kushner showed up with mother Ivanka Trump at the Chinese embassy’s New Year reception on February 2 where they watched a musical performance that included Chinese opera. Mother Ivanka also posted a video on Instagram of Arabella singing a ‘Happy New Year’ song in Mandarin as she swayed, holding a red dragon puppet on strings. The Chinese are enthralled. They have instantly warmed up to the little girl and feel flattered by the attention the president’s family paid to hone her Mandarin skills.

Perhaps, this is a more seductive gesture than Richard Nixon’s ping pong diplomacy. It seems Trump is finding his own path to engage China. He hasn’t yet telephoned Xi Jinping, but he wrote him a Chinese New Year and Lantern Festival greeting letter. Trump wrote that “he looks forward to working with President Xi to develop a constructive relationship that benefits both the United States and China.” The Chinese liked the gesture. Even the hard-nosed Chinese Communist Party tabloid Global Times feels prompted to revise its opinion of Trump. An editorial on Thursday said, “Washington, while appeasing its allies, hasn’t immediately confronted China as many had anticipated … The Chinese hope to see a peaceful relationship.”

If the speculation up until a fortnight ago would have been that Trump would launch a charm offensive to entice Russia away from the Chinese embrace, we are yet to see signs of it. On the contrary, Trump seems to be gravitating toward the legacy of Euro-Atlanticism, and appears to be keen on resetting the US’ trans-Atlantic leadership — rather than disavowing it.

Trump has not yet formed a clear China policy, but from indications so far, the accent is likely to be on engagement rather than confrontation. Analysts may have given undue importance to the past remarks by Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon who once had prophesied a “war in the South China Sea in five to 10 years.”

Trump’s engagement with China will not be an easy process by any means, and discords due to divergent interests, including some very tense moments, can be expected. But a confrontation of the sort that Ronald Reagan had with the former Soviet Union appears simply inconceivable.

Circumstances are entirely different. Enormous conditions will need to be created regionally and internationally to turn unfriendly any mindset in Washington into US policies, and, in the final analysis, realistic national interests will hold sway. Trump and the Chinese leadership have no alternative but to swim or sink together.

M.K. Bhadrakumar

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.

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