Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president threatens to upend the world’s most important bilateral relationship. On the campaign trail, Trump promised to label China a currency manipulator and to respond to its “theft of American trade secrets” and “unfair subsidy behavior” by levying a 45 percent tariff on Chinese exports. As president-elect, he reversed four decades of U.S. policy when he spoke by telephone with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and declared that the United States was not bound by the “one China” policy, the diplomatic understanding that has underpinned Washington’s approach to Beijing since 1979.
Trump’s actions, however, have only compounded deeper problems in the Sino-American relationship. Recent Chinese policies have fueled concerns that the country seeks to overturn the post–Cold War geopolitical order. President Xi Jinping has begun to modernize China’s military, gradually transforming the regional balance of power. He has pursued assertive policies in the East China and South China Seas, appearing to reject both the territorial status quo in East Asia and the role of international law in adjudicating disputes. Many observers now believe that efforts to integrate China into the international system have failed and that East Asia will have to contend with a dangerous, revisionist power.
But China is not the only revisionist power in the U.S.-Chinese relationship. Since the end of World War II, the United States has pursued a strategy aimed at overturning the status quo by spreading liberalism, free markets, and U.S. influence around the world. Just as Chinese revisionism alarms Washington, the United States’ posture stokes fear in Beijing and beyond. As Trump begins his presidency, he would do well to understand this fear. The risk of crises, and even war, will grow if Trump introduces instability into areas of the relationship that posed few problems under previous U.S. administrations. But Trump could ease tensions if he pursues a less revisionist strategy than his predecessors.
Chinese policymakers deny that their
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