Storm rising ... one thing on which all sides seem to agree: there's trouble ahead in US-China relations. Photo: Creative Commons/Pixabay
Storm rising ... one thing on which all sides seem to agree: there's trouble ahead in US-China relations. Photo: Creative Commons/Pixabay

While Democrats and Republicans can’t seem to agree on much these days, there is at least one area on which they do seem to share some much-needed common ground: that US-China relations are in for a rough ride.

The sore spots are obvious: North Korea, the East and South China Seas, and Taiwan all spell trouble for what is arguably the world’s most complex bilateral relationship.

And now trade: That one bright spot in the relationship, which has been a stabilizing force in times of crisis, is moving to the top of the niggle menu. The stage is set for an interesting summit when Xi Jinping sits down with Donald Trump in Florida this week.

So interesting is the state of ties between Washington and Beijing that there appears to be a swelling bipartisan consensus that there is a growing risk of the relationship becoming, as one state department official put it, “unhinged.”

“Just look at the scope of the problem,” said a senior Pentagon official, who declined to be identified because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media. “How can Washington and Beijing sort through so many areas of contention all at the same time? There are so many possible places where the relationship could not only end up on the rocks, but where both sides … could start shooting at each other.”

“I am glad I am out of there,” said a senior former member of the Obama administration’s White House team. “Relations with Beijing are going to get tense in the months and years to come … They are going to continue to press more and more. And now that trade is a sticking point, the one thing we always both pointed to in times of peril, well, we don’t have that luxury anymore.”

A senior Trump administration official was blunt: “We aren’t friends, us and China. That is just a downright and dirty fact that we can’t escape. But we can work together. We can cut some deals. They must know North Korea can’t continue to be a global maniac. They must know that they can’t conquer the South China Sea. And they will know soon we mean business.”

What can China offer? Why not a ‘bribe’?

While past and present officials in Washington seemed downright pessimistic, across the Pacific in China, at least some experts were more optimistic about the summit and overall relations.

“We knew our rise would draw suspicion and doubts all over the world,” said a retired senior Chinese army official. “What we must do is work with Washington as well as Tokyo and anyone else. We must show them that we are not a threat and [can] be a strong partner. And I am sure we will disagree in many areas, but we do not have to be enemies.”

When pressed on ways to help lessen tensions at the summit, one senior economist in Shanghai who works closely with the government offered a very straightforward way to smooth ties, especially when it comes to trade: “Make Trump an offer he can’t refuse.”

He added: “Why don’t we offer lots of grants and no-interest loans to help rebuild America’s horrible infrastructure? Or build factories and hire US workers? We do this all over the world, why not do it for America? Trump gets a win — and we all know he needs one these days.”

But such aid would come at a cost: Washington would have to agree that China is an equal partner in Asia and stop, as the economist put it, “badgering us about the South China Sea or Taiwan.”

When this proposal was put to him, a senior Trump administration official dismissed it as “wishful thinking.”

An uncertain future

While Chinese and US officials both pressed hard for this week’s summit, the meetings will most likely be dominated by closed-door posturing and each side feeling out the other’s opening positions. Zha Daojiong, professor of international political economy at Peking University, explained what seems to be the best case scenario in an op-ed for East Asia Forum: “An uneventful meet-up is going to be a successful one.”

And that seems just about all we can ask for.

Harry J Kazianis

Harry J Kazianis is director of defense studies at The Center for the National Interest and Executive Editor of its publishing arm, the National Interest.