CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS – The U.S.-China relationship ended 2016 on its most ominous note in years. President-elect Donald Trump has questioned the “one-China” policy that has been the default American position and angered mainland China by taking a congratulatory call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. China has reciprocated with barely veiled aggression, adding visible anti-aircraft systems to the artificial islands it has dredged out of the South China Sea and seizing an underwater American drone from under the nose of a U.S. warship.
The big question for 2017 is whether the two sides will let the relationship unravel further. Will their cool war become more “war” and less “cool”?
Until now, the rival strategic interests of China and the U.S. have been mitigated by shared economic interests. But economic cooperation can quickly end over disagreements on currency and trade — reducing the Sino-American relationship to raw, zero-sum geopolitical competition.
Neither nation’s leader can easily avoid this looming conflict; they both face domestic pressure. Trump made campaign commitments to change the dynamic with China, and President Xi Jinping is under pressure to show that his “Chinese dream” is progressing. The most likely outcome is substantial worsening of relations between the world’s last superpower and its fastest-rising rival.
Given this long-standing background tension now coming to the fore, what’s remarkable about U.S. policy toward China over the past two decades is its moderation. As China has been transformed from a second-tier power into the major challenger to the political order of the Pacific region, the Bush and Obama administrations have responded cautiously.
The reasons for this moderation have been complex and varied. One leading explanation is the view that China’s economic growth poses no problem for the U.S., because rising global wealth is not a zero-sum game. China-U.S. trade was mostly seen in classically liberal, free-trade terms: It made everybody better off by offering low-priced goods to American consumers and jobs for Chinese.
But the main reason for moderation is surely that both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama judged that there wasn’t much they could do about China’s rise and the enhanced negotiating power that comes with it — especially while China remains the single largest non-U.S. holder of Treasury debt.
Militarily, both Bush and Obama maintained the traditional hub-and-spokes security relationship with various Pacific nations, in effect containing China without using that provocative word.
Trump sees things very differently. He depicts China’s growth as illegitimate, caused by unfair currency policy rather than the export of goods at rock-bottom prices. He is already demonstrating that he believes he can change the negotiating calculus by revisiting the traditionally accommodating U.S. position.
Meanwhile, Trump seems fairly unconcerned about China’s regional geopolitical ambitions. On the campaign trail, he criticized the U.S. treaty obligation to defend Japan and called on Japan to pay more for U.S. troops stationed there.
That’s a 180-degree turn from the recent U.S. approach. Bush and Obama basically welcomed China’s economic growth but were wary of the nation’s increasing military strength. Trump seems suspicious of China’s economic progress but unworried about its geopolitical influence.
How China will respond depends very much on Xi’s perception of his nation’s economic and strategic interests — and his own political objectives. China’s export-driven economy cannot afford a trade war with the U.S.
Holding vast amounts of U.S. debt is a form of leverage, to be sure; but it also means China can’t afford to push the U.S. into a position where its bonds fall sharply in value. Trump’s history of bankruptcy is an extra reason for Chinese caution on this front.
At the same time, Xi has committed himself, and the Chinese Communist Party, to a nationalist domestic strategy. Given the inevitable decline of economic growth in China from its world-historical heights, only nationalism promises to shore up the party’s legitimacy.
The nationalist imperative will matter especially to Xi if he decides to try to stay in power longer than 10 years, thus breaking the norm developed by two decadelong cycles of Chinese politics. If he does, he will need a still stronger nationalist rationale to justify the deviation.
Given all this, it’s reasonable to expect Xi to show strength against Trump through symbolic military aggression — like the anti-aircraft batteries in the Spratly Islands and the underwater drone stunt. That plays better with the Chinese domestic audience than economic responses.
If that happens, Trump will have to reconsider the question of China’s military stance. He could reply with cheap talk. Or he could adopt something like the Obama approach — putting U.S. F-22 fighter jets in Australia.
The danger of military escalation is not small. The danger of economic escalation isn’t either. For all the talk about Vladimir Putin and Russia, Trump’s presidency may well come to be defined by his relations with China.
In this sense, Trump’s election could actually be a bonus for Xi. To stay on in office requires an excuse. Rocky relations with the U.S. could provide it.
Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University.