Reporter's Notebook

U.S.-China Relations in the Age of Trump
Show Description +

James Fallows, Uri Friedman, and Atlantic readers discuss the ramifications of a Trump presidency when it comes to the U.S.’s complicated relationship with China. (For a primer, read our December 2016 cover story by Fallows, “China’s Great Leap Backward.”) If you’d like to join in, please send us a note:

Show 0 Newer Notes

Remember the 'Thucydides Trap'? The Chinese Do; Trump Clearly Does Not

A tweet from Donald Trump this morning. It carried the meta-data label “Twitter for iPhone,” which has generally meant a staff-written tweet, in contrast to the freer-swinging 3am messages from Trump’s own “Twitter for Android.” The word “unprecedented” also is not typical of Trump’s own messages. (Also please see update at end of post.)

In my cover story in the December issue of the magazine, on how the United States should prepare for the possibility of a more truculent and repressive China, I mention the concept of the “Thucydides Trap.” The article describes the implications:

This concept was popularized by the Harvard political scientist [and my one-time professor as an undergraduate] Graham Allison. Its premise is that through the 2,500 years since the Peloponnesian warfare that Thucydides chronicled, rising powers (like Athens then, or China now) and incumbent powers (like Sparta, or the United States) have usually ended up in a fight to the death, mainly because each cannot help playing on the worst fears of the other. “When a rising power is threatening to displace a ruling power, standard crises that would otherwise be contained, like the assassination of an archduke in 1914, can initiate a cascade of reactions that, in turn, produce outcomes none of the parties would otherwise have chosen,” Allison wrote in an essay for last year.

The idea Allison was getting across—that managing relations between the United States and China is enormously important, and also very complex, and not guaranteed to turn out well—is built into the themes Henry Kissinger expressed to Jeffrey Goldberg in the interview in that same issue, and that I was explaining in my article, and that every U.S. president from Nixon through Obama has reflected upon and, with some variations, built into his policy toward China, the Koreas, Japan, Asia, and the world as a whole.

Reduced to three elements, this outlook would be:

  • Relations with China really matter, for each country’s interests and for the world’s;
  • They’re very complex and less obvious than they seem, in part because the Chinese government sees the world differently from the U.S. government in some important ways; and
  • If poorly managed, they can lead to great danger, even the unlikely-but-conceivable disaster of military showdown. This is another way of stating the first point, with emphasis on the downside.

In his press conference yesterday, President Obama lightly touched on several of these points, while talking about the entities we usually refer to as “Taiwan” (the Republic of China, HQ in Taipei) and “China” (the People’s Republic of China, HQ in Beijing). Here is what he said, with emphasis added:

There has been a longstanding agreement essentially between China and the United States, and to some degree the Taiwanese, which is to not change the status quo. Taiwan operates differently than mainland China does. China views Taiwan as part of China, but recognizes that it has to approach Taiwan as an entity that has its own ways of doing things.

The Taiwanese have agreed that as long as they’re able to continue to function with some degree of autonomy, that they won’t charge forward and declare independence. And that status quo, although not completely satisfactory to any of the parties involved, has kept the peace and allowed the Taiwanese to be a pretty successful economy and—of people who have a high degree of self-determination.

What I understand for China, the issue of Taiwan is as important as anything on their docket. The idea of One China is at the heart of their conception as a nation. And so if you are going to upend this understanding, you have to have thought through the consequences because the Chinese will not treat that the way they’ll treat some other issues.

They won’t even treat it the way they issues around the South China Sea, where we've had a lot of tensions. This goes to the core of how they see themselves.

And their reaction on this issue could end up being very significant. That doesn't mean that you have to adhere to everything that's been done in the past, but you have to think it through and have planned for potential reactions that they may engage in.

And now we have Donald Trump, five weeks away from being president but determined to put himself in the middle of U.S.-China relations as he has everything else. (Please see update after the jump)


As a general principle of life, I’m skeptical of claims that begin, “Oh, this is too complex, leave it to the experts.” Usually there is a simple way to convey the essence of an issue. But the simple way to state the reality of U.S.-China-Taiwan relations is that they are very complex and the product of decades’ worth of trade-offs and understandings, and that they are much easier to destroy than they were to create and sustain.

What could go wrong?

The joke about Homer Simpson, as the lovably incompetent operator at the Springfield Nuclear Plant, is that he had no idea of the complexity of what he was dealing with—or the potential consequences of his blunders. It’s not that everything in the world is more complex than it seems; it’s that nuclear plants are more complex, and dangerous. So too in dealings with China.

I can tell you that virtually everyone on the Chinese, North America, Asian and ASEAN, etc. front of U.S.-Chinese relations has a similar dread about Trump’s tweet-based “policy” toward China. Of course any aspect of U.S. policy should be up for re-examination, including this one. But Trump appears to have no idea what he is dealing with, what it has taken to make the relationship as stable as it has been, or what it could mean for it to go awry.

In the sequence leading to this latest tweet, we see an example of the latter point:

  • Trump challenges and provokes the Chinese, with a literally unprecedented gesture toward Taiwan that—as Obama pointed out, and as Nixon, Reagan, and either of the Bushes, plus Kissinger would have confirmed—challenges what China’s leaders consider the irreducible heart of their national identity;
  • Once Chinese officials determine that he’s not just kidding (the initial press reaction noted that Trump was still a private citizen, soon followed by editorials saying that he was “speaking like a child”), the leaders get their back up, and take their own unprecedented step of seizing this maritime drone;
  • And then Trump, who as president-elect has been the major force provoking China, responds in today’s raise-the-stakes way.

I do not believe the United States and China are likely to go to war. There are too many buffers on each side; too many many positive linkages; too much awareness on the Chinese side of U.S. relative military advantages—and on both sides of the potential risks.

But if historians and citizens look back on our era as the transition point, at which 40 years of relatively successful management of U.S.-China relations gave way to a reckless focus on grievances and differences,tweets like the one today will be part of their sad record.

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen speaks on the phone with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump at her office in Taipei, Taiwan, in this handout photo made available on December 3, 2016. Reuters

Joseph Gualtieri in Hong Kong—the same Atlantic reader we featured in our earlier note about Trump’s phone call with the Taiwanese president—pushes back on my interview with Shen Dingli, a professor at Fudan University in Shanghai:

I’ve just finished reading your engaging interview. I am now wondering why you didn’t feel the need to address or at least mark out some of Shen Dingli’s more outlandish claims.

For example, the comparison of Taiwan to Hawaii and Texas is patently ridiculous; both states voted to join the United States, were incorporated through a legal process, and, despite some grumbling, an overwhelming majority of their citizens acknowledge and accept that their states belong to the United States. I don’t think you can say the same about Taiwan, which has never—not for one day—been a part of the [People’s Republic of China] and whose people overwhelmingly choose not to become a part of China. Shen might have cited the expansionist impulses behind the U.S. acquisition of Texas and Hawaii, but then it might be pointed out that in the eyes of most people and contemporary legal understandings, this kind of behavior is no longer acceptable.

After letting his assertion that “Taiwan is a part of China” go unquestioned, you similarly leave unchallenged the assertion that Trump and America are causing all of the chaos (never mind China’s building artificial islands [in the South China Sea], [considering] unilaterally declaring an [Air Defense Identification Zone in the South China Sea], rejecting the findings of international tribunals, and on and on). You allow his outrageous erasure of all of the ambiguity inherent to the One-China Policy (and you allow him to treat it like an immutable fact rather than a political workaround). And you allow him to paint a neat little history of Taiwan that excludes thousands of years of aboriginal inhabitation, short-lived colonization projects by Spain and the Netherlands, centuries of disconnect from the authorities on Mainland China, 50 years of Japanese rule, and invasion and decades of subjugation by the violent [Kuomintang] dictatorship [after the Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek fled from mainland China to Taiwan and reconstituted the Republic of China on the island following Mao Zedong’s revolution in 1949].

My goal with the interview was to offer readers a sense of what Trump’s Taiwan call, along with his campaign and post-campaign rhetoric about China, look like from China and particularly among Chinese who spend their time thinking about how to manage the country’s high-stakes relationship with the United States. As an expert on Chinese foreign policy who can speak more openly than, say, the Chinese foreign minister can, Shen Dingli is well-positioned to provide this perspective. You can argue, as Joseph does, that the narrative he presents about Taiwan is ideological or misleading, but his nationalistic views are nevertheless widespread in China. Such views could shape the Chinese government’s response if Trump, as president, pursues changes to U.S. policy on Taiwan. Shen—like many people in China, I suspect—is also in the process of recalibrating his views of Trump after initially applauding his victory.

"The Terrible Inspection," a woodcut by Rong-zan Huang depicted a scene from the the February 28 Massacre, which "marked the beginning of the Kuomintang's White Terror period in Taiwan, in which thousands more inhabitants vanished, died, or were imprisoned. This incident is one of the most important events in Taiwan's modern history, and is a critical impetus for the Taiwan independence movement." Wikimedia

In our earlier roundup of reactions to Trump’s phone call to Taiwan, we noted this popular comment from a reader:

Taiwan is a wonderful free country that the rest of Asia should look to as an example. Taiwan should be on a pedestal, and the U.S. should have an open and proud alliance with them.

This next reader vehemently disagrees:

I was born in Nanjing, China, the once capital of China and headquarters to the KMT [Kuomintang] party of Taiwan and China. But I immigrated to the USA at age 6. To say that Taiwan should be put on a pedestal in Asia as a sign of democracy is patronizing and ridiculous. Let me take you back to the history of China and Taiwan.


The KMT party founded modern China in 1911 and ruled it with an iron fist until the communists ran them out of the mainland. As I said, I am from Nanjing, and there are still monuments there to the KMT that honor Chiang Kai-shek. He is not hated or blamed for the corruption of the KMT. He had good intentions. It was the people around him. Taiwanese people still make yearly pilgrimages to where it all began.

A major reason for the KMT’s defeat to the peasants and farmers is because of their mismanagement of China’s military and economy, and their utter disdain for the poor. The poor were suffering tremendously. Their utter disregard for the lives of the common man was shown in the Nanjing massacre.

People read about the Nanjing massacre and study the history of it, but that was my people and my hometown that happened to. The KMT knew the Japanese were coming, so they decided to take their elite military and flee the capital, leaving the civilians, poor farmers, and peasants to the mercy of the Japanese imperial army in hopes of slowing the Japanese down while they regrouped. They didn’t evacuate the city; they abandoned it. Who does that? What government doesn’t protect the lives of their people? Who sacrifices the lives of 300,000 innocent women, elderly, children to save their own skin? That’s unforgivable.

Mao the great “despot” was a mere librarian. He could read and was educated. He made many mistakes, no doubt there. People like him usually were sided with the elite ruling class, something the peasants couldn’t do back then, since they had no access to an education. The KMT had no interest in trying to educate the common Chinese peasant. This is why education is so important to Chinese people to this day.  

China’s communist win shocked the ruling elite of the world. (If China was a democracy under the KMT, there would have been no reason to have a Chinese civil war.) It wasn’t some sort of devious plan to take over the world. The people just wanted to have a chance to better themselves in life. We see the disdain the civilized elite have for the common man around the world today.

When the KMT led by Chiang arrived in Taiwan, they enslaved and massacred the aboriginals and other settlers. They committed the 228 atrocity in Taiwan, cruelly putting down any signs of rebellion. They wrote a constitution that claims mainland China, Tibet, and the 9 dash line (remarkably, the KMT are the ones whom drew the 9 dash line and have also protested The Hague ruling in the south seas). The 9 dash line originates with Taiwan, yet the CCP [Communist Party of China] gets bashed for it alone. See the hypocrisy.

Here was Fallows’s first impulse upon hearing the news Friday that the U.S. president-elect phoned Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen:

The phone call was the first known occurrence of a U.S. president or president-elect speaking with a Taiwanese leader since Jimmy Carter (who, incidentally, hired Fallows as his top speechwriter). If you’re like me and need a primer on China-Taiwan-U.S. relations, my colleague David Graham has you covered. On the “strangeness” of that triad:

The U.S. maintains a strong “unofficial” relationship with Taiwan, including providing it with “defensive” weapons, while also refusing to recognize its independence and pressuring Taiwanese leaders not to upset a fragile but functional status quo. It’s the sort of fiction that is obvious to all involved, but on which diplomacy is built: All parties agree to believe in the fiction for the sake of getting along. […] Under the 1992 Consensus, another artful diplomatic fiction, both Taipei and Beijing agreed that there was only one China and agreed to disagree on which was legitimate, as well as maintaining two separate systems. During the Bush years, the U.S. said it would defend Taiwan in an attack, but Bush also pushed back on Taiwanese moves toward independence.

Isaac Stone Fish goes into greater historical detail in an Atlantic piece called “The Long Fall of Taiwan.” As far as reader input, here’s the most up-voted comment on David’s piece:

If Trump calling Tsai was a calculated move, I’m all for it. Taiwan is a wonderful free country that the rest of Asia should look to as an example. Taiwan should be on a pedestal, and the U.S. should have an open and proud alliance with them. China is moving in the right direction, but they are currently a disgrace to human decency and have a lot to learn from Taiwan.

If it’s a Being There moment, and Trump really had no idea what he was doing, it’s concerning.

That view from our reader basically aligns with the following email that Fallows just forwarded me, from a reader in Hong Kong:

Sorry for a long email, but here are some thoughts on Trump and Tsai’s phone call. TL;DR: China’s recent behavior and Taiwan’s growing vulnerability mean that, as incompetent as Trump is, his transgression may provide an opening for a long-overdue reconsideration of our Taiwan policy.

From the perspective of many of us in Hong Kong, it’s troubling to think of how Taiwanese society could end up if steps are not taken to ensure Taiwanese independence (or at least de facto independence). Look at how Beijing has used every tool at its disposal to stifle dissent and renege on its promises for democracy in Hong Kong: