US-China relations stable despite expectations, say panellists at forum

SINGAPORE - Despite United States President Donald Trump's rhetoric to put American interests first, his policies on Asia has shown more continuity than disruption, said Professor Chan Heng Chee, ambassador-at-large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

She noted that shortly after Mr Trump was elected, senior members of his administration - Vice-President Mike Pence and Defence Secretary Jim Mattis - had visited Asia.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was also the first world leader to meet then President-elect at Trump Tower in New York, she added.

Speaking on relations between the US and China at the FutureChina Global Forum on Friday (July 14), Prof Chan said: "I'm just pointing all this out as evidence of more continuity than one would expect, given all the rhetoric."

During the panel discussion, she outlined how relations have stayed stable after Mr Trump became president, defying the expectations created by his campaign rhetoric.

For instance, he had spoken "in extremes and took a very hard line" when talking about relations with China during his presidential campaign last year, said Prof Chan.

Last December, he had also taken a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan President Tsai Ing-Wen, breaking decades of diplomatic protocol, she added.

But Mr Trump has since "walked back" to the one-China Policy, met Chinese President Xi Jinping and "seems to have developed a new friendship" with him, Prof Chan said.

But she also said the appetite of the American people for their government to play the role of global leader seems to have waned and this, coupled with China's continued rise, has led to some Asean member states "entering the Chinese orbit" in greater or lesser degrees.

Also on the panel were Dr Shi Yinhong, director of the Renmin University of China's Centre of American Studies, and Mr Clyde Prestowitz, president of the Economic Strategy Institute.

Dr Shi said that Mr Trump is notorious for his "arrogance, volatility and lack of sense of responsibility" and seems to view the "complicated relationship" between China and the US through the prism of the North Korea issue.

"The North Korea problem is like a type of cancer for Sino-American relations," he said, adding that the issue has damaged relations between the two countries.

Mr Prestowitz said the US believes that China has "great leverage" over North Korea, given that the regime depends economically on the Chinese.

He said China could cut off food or fuel to get the North Korean regime to cooperate, but added: "And China for various reasons doesn't or cannot do that and that creates a huge misunderstanding."

Prof Chan, who was Singapore's ambassador to the US from 1996 to 2012, said her experience has led her to conclude that there are "structural elements in the US-China relationship which will not allow the relationship to go too good, nor will it go too bad".

She noted that both parties were each other's second largest trading partners.

But she said one key factor prevented strategic trust from developing between both countries - that "deep down", the US cannot accept China's communist system of government and wants to change it.

Dr Shi pointed out that both powers needed to make "strategic accommodations" and respect each other's strategic interests.

Friday's discussion was moderated by Mr Claude Smadja, president of strategic advisory firm Smadja and Smadja.

The two-day forum, which began on Thursday, was organised by non-profit organisation Business China. Over 500 business leaders and academics attended the forum.