After a campaign filled with harsh words against China, a transition that upended 45 years of diplomacy with Beijing, and a first week in office that included threats of a trade war, if not an actual one, President Donald Trump appears to be seeking to dial back tensions with President Xi Jinping. He sent the Chinese leader a letter wishing him a happy Lunar New Year (albeit a bit late) and saying he wants to develop a "constructive relationship." After threatening a 45 percent tariff on Chinese imports, speaking by phone with the leader of Taiwan and rattling sabers about islands in the South China Sea, he's got a lot of work to do if he wants to set the relationship between the world's two largest economic powers on a smooth course. And the problem isn't just a matter of diplomatic niceties; it's that Mr. Trump's actions and policies are putting us in a weaker bargaining position.
During the campaign, Mr. Trump repeatedly bashed the Trans Pacific Partnership, negotiated by President Barack Obama with 11 other Pacific rim nations, claiming it would siphon U.S. manufacturing jobs to low-wage countries in Asia and hollow out of American industry. Shortly after taking office, Mr. Trump announced he was scrapping the TPP and would seek to replace it with a new series of bilateral trade agreements that protected the interests of American companies and workers.
The TPP wasn't perfect, but tearing it up has serious downsides. For one, it potentially hands China, which was excluded from the TPP, a golden opportunity to expand its influence with America's former trading partners, who will now have to renegotiate the terms and conditions of their trade with the U.S. individually rather than collectively and thus from a relatively weaker position. They might easily conclude they can get a better deal from their giant neighbor China than from what they view as an increasingly unreliable U.S. The American withdrawal also creates a huge economic power vacuum that other countries, including China, will rush to fill, giving them the chance to eventually supplant America's leadership role in the region. In unilaterally scrapping the TPP, the Trump administration may inadvertently have handed China a public relations and propaganda victory it could never have won on its own.
More disturbing than the administration's apparent squandering of an important leadership opportunity in the economic realm, however, was the administration's willingness to stoke fears of a shooting war with China over access to some small artificial islands in the South China Sea that Beijing and several other countries all claim. Both Press Secretary Sean Spicer and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested last month that the U.S. Navy might blockade the islands to prevent Chinese ships and aircraft from reaching them — even though Beijing almost certainly would regard that as an act of war, whether or not its ships or planes were actually fired on. Defense Secretary James Mattis has subsequently walked back the implied threat, saying Washington would seek to resolve the issue diplomatically.
But the most serious threat to productive relations has been the questioning by Mr. Trump and Mr. Tillerson of the continued relevance of the U.S. "one China" policy, which obliges Washington to regard the Beijing government as China's sole sovereign power, and which has formed the basis of the U.S.-Chinese relationship since 1972. There's no doubt China's leaders would consider any attempt to alter that policy as a existential threat worth going to war for. Chinese officials insist that they do not consider it a snub that President Trump has spoken with some two dozen world leaders before Mr. Xi, but his phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen during the transition surely must rankle.
The United States remains more powerful than China both economically and militarily, but the Asian power is growing fast on both counts. Even as China seeks to expand its influence in the region and globally, its leaders recognize, as Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said in response to Mr. Trump's letter, that "the two countries share wide common interests, and cooperation is the only correct path for both."
For now, anyway. Chinese leaders have been notably patient in the face of Mr. Trump's threats and vicissitudes; they are clearly playing a long game. Mr. Trump needs to do the same. That means not antagonizing our closest allies in the region — like, say, by haranguing and hanging up on the prime minister of Australia — and not throwing away years of work to build a trans-Pacific trade network. Whether Mr. Trump keeps up his recent diplomacy or reverts to tough talk will matter much less than whether we bargain from a position of strength and influence.