US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, President Donald Trump and US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer. Photos: Reuters/AFP/Asia Times
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, President Donald Trump and US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer. Photos: Reuters/AFP/Asia Times

Judging from headlines in the Chinese press, and statements from Chinese leaders, one might come to the conclusion that US-China relations are not just near an all-time high, good times also lie ahead. Bilateral ties dodged a bullet when Trump won the US presidential election, a popular narrative in Beijing goes, as the Obama-Clinton strategy to contain China’s influence evaporated overnight.

The state-run English-language China Daily continued the theme this week with headlines such as “Xi sees ‘new vistas’ in Sino-US ties,” and “Sino-US technological cooperation sees bright prospect.” Both articles were reports on the National Committee on US-China relations held in New York on Monday, an event which no doubt lent itself to the promotion of friendly ties.

Following Trump’s visit to China, widely panned in the Western press, China’s ambassador to the US, Cui Tiankai, pushed back on criticism, saying the trip was “constructive and fruitful.” Responding to criticism that one-off trade deals were not substantial, Cui said “I don’t think US$250 billion is a small number … of course, some of the deals will have to be implemented … As long as there is sufficient political will…”

Cui Tiankai, China’'s Ambassador to the US participates in the Plenary Session of the US-China Consultation on People-to-People Exchange during the seventh US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue at the US State Department in Washington DC, June 24, 2015. The United States and China vowed to avoid confrontation as they headed Wednesday into a final day of key talks, confronting head-on differences on issues such as cyber security and freedom of the seas. AFP PHOTO/CHRIS KLEPONIS / AFP PHOTO / CHRIS KLEPONIS
Cui Tiankai, China’’s Ambassador to the US. Photo: AFP / Chris Kleponis

The Global Times wrote that the “Trump visit instills positive factors in Sino-US ties,” adding that “this doesn’t come easily, as the initial impression of Trump [held by the Chinese public] was completely led by US media reports.” Citing unspecified “fake reports” about Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign, the Global Times article went on to argue “it wasn’t until his election victory that the Chinese public realized they had been cheated by the American media.”

But the exaltation beaming from Beijing is not reflected in Washington, among leaders and officials in either political party, nor within the White House itself. By most accounts, the relationship’s current trajectory is not significantly distinguishable from the trend during the Obama administration. By some accounts it is about to get worse.

There is a plethora of evidence to support this pessimistic view. First and foremost, one has to look only to the policy team forming within the White House itself. As Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow for China studies Ely Ratner writes, Trump is finally filling out his Asia policy staff, and they share a view held throughout the administration that the US needs a more competitive China strategy. He adds that two official strategy documents, expected within the next several months, will finally articulate a China strategy that moves beyond North Korea to Taiwan and the South China Sea.

One White House official was recently quoted as saying, “While everyone’s been paying attention to the distractions, the traditional Republican Asia hawks are moving China policy in a direction that would be recognizable in most Republican administrations.”

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer (R) and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (2nd R) attend bilateral meetings between U.S. President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China November 9, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer (R) and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (2nd R) attend bilateral meetings between US President Donald Trump and China’s President Xi Jinping in Beijing. Photo: Reuters / Jonathan Ernst

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent speech on US-India ties supports this view. Speaking shortly before Trump visited China, Tillerson’s speech about India veered quickly to harsh criticisms of China, and implicit reference to territorial disputes.

Lambasting Beijing for undermining international norms, America’s top diplomat said the US “will not shrink from China’s challenges to the rules-based order. And where China subverts the sovereignty of neighboring countries, it disadvantages the US and our friends.”

In addition to potential for a harder line on security issues, talk of a looming showdown on trade is yet again growing louder. There was speculation that China trade hawk Peter Navarro’s absence from Trump’s trip to China was a sign that the so-called trade warriors were losing sway. But recent reports paint a much different picture. The chief economic advisor on Trump’s visit was the most vocal of proponents of a harder line on China trade, US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer. Where were the cooler heads of Steve Mnuchin and Gary Cohn? Back in Washington working on tax reform.

Political news outlet Axios, which has demonstrated unique access to the inner workings of the White House, reported this week that Trump has huge respect for Lighthizer. His long career of working on China trade issues, including as deputy USTR in the Reagan administration has helped him win the respect of top officials, as well as debates with them.

At least one sign that the Trump administration is ready to follow through on concrete trade actions against China came last month when the US decided to impose heavy import duties on aluminum foil. Other irons in the fire include possible action on steel imports, as well as an investigation into China’s practice of forced technology transfer.

But perhaps the clearest indication that Trump is ready to play hardball came on his trip to China. Despite a great deal of pressure to make substantive progress on trade, after disastrous high-level talks in August, the administration was reportedly uninterested in unveiling a deal to give American firms greater market access to China’s financial industry during Trump’s visit. Shortly after Trump departed, Beijing made the announcement anyway.

The move was “welcome but long overdue,” a White House spokesperson was quoted as saying. “It is also only one of a plethora of problems China needs to address in order to provide fair and reciprocal access to its market.”