President Donald J. Trump intends to change the relationship between the United States and China. Will it lead to a conflict, or an arms race, or a new world order that actually benefits the People’s Republic?

No easy answers are available at this time, because Trump’s policy is unclear. The President and his advisors have sent out mixed signals on China and foreign policy. Team Trump has used harsh rhetoric about China, yet Trump himself has announced what might be a pull back from international commitments such as defense of U.S. allies.

Some observers; such as Harvard Business Professor Bill George, think that Trump’s use of the term America First during his inauguration speech indicates a “withdrawal from global leadership.” America First is a loaded term it was the slogan of the isolationists who opposed U.S. entry into World War II in 1940 and 1941.

Trump Sends Mixed Signals on China

Since then Americans have avoided using the term because it had connotations of sympathizing with the Nazis. In reality most of the World War II, isolationists were simply people opposed to war. Supporters of America First included Socialist Party leader and pacifist Norman Thomas: and the nation’s foremost conservative leader at the time; U.S. Senator Robert Taft.

George thinks Trump might want a return to the pre-1941 U.S. foreign policy; of acting as simply a great power, and not a world leader or superpower. If that is the case military entanglements and conflict with China are unlikely.

Yet Trump is also dedicated to a naval build up; and incoming Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the U.S would stop China’s access to artificial islands in disputed areas of the South China Sea, The South China Morning Post reported. The islands are in the territorial waters of a key U.S. ally; the Philippines, a former American colony.

Is an American-Indian Alliance against China Developing?

There is some speculation that Trump wants a formal military alliance with India. Trump has called Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, “a true friend” and stated he wants a closer alliance with that country.

Modi has tweeted that he wants to strength bilateral ties with the United States, The Times of India reported. Trump and Modi did discuss security and defense during their phone call on January 25.

Such an alliance would complicate matters because Chinese and Indian troops are facing off along the two nation’s mutual border in the Himalayas. China is increasing troop deployments there and strengthening its ties with India’s traditional enemy, Pakistan.

Another possibility is that Trump is trying to enlist allies as a counterbalance to China; so he can reduce American commitments in Asia. Since Russia lacks the money and resources to fill that role, India is a natural candidate.

Chinese Media is critical of Trump

The Chinese themselves have sent mixed signals about Trump. The nation’s Central Military Commission has ordered new naval exercises on the high seas that include the deployment of the aircraft carrier Liaoning.

The People’s Liberation Army Navy has added 20 vessels to its fleet since 2013 and there are plans to grow to 279 ships by 2020, The South China Morning Post reported. New weapons including stealth fighters are on the drawing board.

Chinese media outlets have also made some bellicose statements aimed at the U.S. and Trump, Bloomberg reported. The Global News, a newspaper associated with the Communist Party warned Trump about the Ministry of Commerce’s “big sticks” in an editorial. The editorial was directed at new U.S. trade representative Robert Lighthizer, a well-known critic of China.

An editorial in the state-run China Daily pointed to Trump’s decision to appoint economics professor Peter Navarro as head of the National Trade Council as proof the president wants confrontation. Navarro is a well-known China basher who wrote the book and documentary Death by China.

How Trump might be good for China

Despite that China’s President has taken a more nuanced position. Xi Jinping seems to be positioning himself as a level headed statesman and neoliberal global leader and alternative to Trump.

Xi attended the World Economic Forum at Davos which Trump’s team boycotted and made a point of defending economic globalization there, George pointed out. George thinks China might move into a vacuum left by an American exit from global leadership.

“If the U.S. steps aside, it will enable China to aggressively fill this vacuum, setting its own rules,” George noted in a Linked In post. Despite that there’s no indication China wants the job as world leader.

Even though China benefits from Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), Beijing has not moved to take advantage of the situation. The TPP was very popular in Asia; because it obligated America to countries there, but unpopular in the United States.

The fear is that China will use the death of the TPP as an opportunity to form new trade deals with Asia Pacific nations or set up its own trading regime, The Washington Post reported. Yet there’s no evidence that Chinese diplomats are moving to take advantage.

China Might not Want the Job of World Leader

“With the abandonment of TPP, Chinese leaders are likely breathing a sigh of relief and actively thinking of ways to further consolidate China’s dominance in Asia and beyond,” Victor Shih a professor at the University of California at San Diego’s School of Global Policy said.

The TPP seems to signify a paradigm shift in U.S. policy and relations with China. One of Trump’s first actions was to withdraw from a key commitment in Asia, yet the Chinese are not very happy about it.

Instead the Chinese are starting to view Trump as their biggest enemy and are moving to contain or control him The Post reported. One major fear in Beijing is an all-out trade war between the U.S. and China.

One thing is clear the relationship between the United States and China is about to change dramatically. Only time will tell if the new relationship will be good for the world, or a recipe for a new level of international conflict. Nor does anybody know if the United States or China will be the winner in this new world order.

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