Trump's China strategy counterproductive, says former top US diplomat for Asia Pacific

The China-US relationship is in a "downward spiral" and he was worried about the long-term effects, said Mr Danny Russel, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs from 2013 to 2017. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK - The Donald Trump administration's push back against China, while not unjustified, is yielding no results but rather strengthening hardliners in Beijing and generating a risky "toxic hostility" in the bilateral relationship, a former top State Department official for Asia has warned.

The China-US relationship is in a "downward spiral" and he was worried about the long-term effects, said Mr Danny Russel, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs from 2013 to 2017.

Mr Russel, who is currently Vice President for International Security and Diplomacy at the Asia Society Policy Institute (ASPI), was speaking in an interview with The Straits Times in New York.

There is broad consensus in the United States and well beyond, that China's exploitation of the international system as well as of the openness of Western markets and society, and lack of reciprocity with significant barriers and restrictions to foreigners and foreign businesses in China, have been not only unfair but intolerable, said Mr Russel.

But the Trump administration's approach had been "profoundly ineffective," he said.

"For retaliation to be smart it needs to be applied in a targeted and judicious manner for the purpose not of inflicting pain but to change behaviour," he said. "And you can't claim that Trump's retaliatory measures - the tariffs, the threats, the listing of companies like Huawei - have led to better behaviour by China."

"On the contrary (China has) dug itself in more determinedly," Mr Russel said. "The Trump administration has not been able to close any deal, nor have they been able to address the more important structural economic and technological challenges."

"In the process they have not only slammed the door on benign and useful cooperation particularly on transnational and global issues, but have inadvertently validated a kind of paranoid view in Beijing that the US's goal is to block China's development and sow unrest, to weaken China," he added.

Mr Russel's comments came days after President Trump delayed a new round of tariffs on Chinese goods in a bid to keep prices from rising in America in the run up to the Christmas shopping season. Negotiations on trade terms, market access in China, and intellectual property rights protection are due to resume next month in the United States, but expectations of a comprehensive deal between the two are low.

Largely missing is traditional diplomatic and security dialogue with China, Mr Russel said. The occasional freedom of navigation operation (Fonop) by American warships in the South China Sea was no substitute for sustained, comprehensive diplomatic, political and defence engagement with claimant countries in the region.

Also, the Trump administration's "America First" doctrine leaves little room for other countries, he said.

"If America's allies are really freeloaders who have been taking advantage of the United States, and if multilateral organisations are disadvantageous to the US because we are strong and we should be able to do whatever we want, and if competitors are enemies to be crushed, there's not a whole lot of room for the kind of collaboration, cooperation and partnership that has driven stability and growth in the Asia Pacific region for many decades," he said.

A second term for President Trump, if he wins re-election in 2020, would likely mean further retrenchment by the United States, leaving vacuums abroad that would be filled by other, regional powers, Mr Russel said.

"What we will see is something more akin to spheres of influence where big regional powers stake their claims to their periphery and exercise hegemonic influence," he said. "When there are no champions for a global order then the global order will be honoured in the breach."

He said that the basic principle that the United States embraced in the post war period was that even the strongest, wealthiest nation would submit to the rule of law.

"Leaving the high ground and creating a vacuum at a moment of China's ascendancy really can only lead to one outcome - a Chinese hegemonic sphere of influence," he concluded.

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