No easy remedy for US-China tensions

Trump and Xi are unlikely to reach a deal that can resolve the current strains in relations at the upcoming G20 summit.

Xi Trump
US President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping make joint statements at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, on November 9, 2017. [Jonathan Ernst/Reuters]

The G20 Summit will kick off in Argentina on November 30 with most eyes focused on tensions between the United States and China over a range of trade and security issues. Under the administration of President Donald Trump, Washington has taken a harder line towards Beijing, especially on trade, and has insisted that the pressure will not relent until China comes to the table with a deal that addresses long-running concerns.

The US president has played up his upcoming meeting with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping as Beijing’s chance to make concessions necessary for the lifting of a series of punishing tariffs put on China earlier this year. in the run-up to the meeting, Trump remarked: “I know every ingredient, every stat. I know it better than everybody knows it. My gut is always right. China wants to make a deal. If we can make a deal, we will.”

The Trump administration has levied 25 percent tariffs on Chinese goods worth more than $34bn in July. An additional $200bn of goods are subjected to 10 percent tariffs since September. If there is no deal made in Argentina, Trump has threatened to impose even more tariffs on China in the coming months – increasing the rates to 25 percent across the board. China has also been called out for its unfair trade practices such as its dumping of subsidised goods in the US market, stealing intellectual property and proliferating counterfeit goods.

But the trade tensions are just a part of the picture. Earlier this month, US Vice President Mike Pence was in Singapore to attend the East Asia Summit and in Papua New Guinea for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders’ summit. Pence, who stood in for Trump at the meetings, mirrored Washington’s labelling of Beijing as a “strategic competitor” in key national security documents such as the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy.


As a result of Pence’s continued articulation of Washington’s new stance towards China, APEC member states were unable to produce a joint statement after this year’s leaders’ summit – they failed to agree on wording related to protectionism and “unfair trade practices”. This was a first in the organisation’s history, underlining the gravity and over-reaching impacts of the deepening tensions between the US and China. 

Pence’s actions in East Asia came on the back of an array of other US moves critiquing China’s activities – both in trade and security realms. In an unprecedented policy speech last month at the Hudson Institute, Pence had outlined a laundry list of US concerns on China – from unfair trade practices and foreign interference to its regional aggressiveness in the East and South China Seas. Pence insisted that “when it comes to Beijing’s malign influence and interference in American politics and policy, we will continue to expose it, no matter the form it takes”.

In light of all this, while Trump may indeed expect Xi to come to the G-20 with his arms full of concessions on trade, the reality is that anything the latter offers will likely be little more than cosmetic gestures. This will provide the US with two choices: double down on their pressure towards Beijing, or oversell any “deal” and claim it as another victory for the administration’s America First policy. The latter, while quite possible considering the track record of the White House, seems unlikely to succeed.


This is true for several reasons. First, the Trump administration’s tougher approach to China – while often crude in its articulation (especially on trade) – is grounded in long-standing bipartisan concerns about Beijing’s behaviour and its effect on the US and its allies in the region. The current strains in relations between Washington and Beijing, stemming from deep-rooted disagreements on a variety of issues between the two nations, are unlikely to be resolved with any lone trade deal.

A clear case in point on this is Washington’s increasingly open criticism of Xi’s signature foreign policy strategy – the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In a stinging public rebuke, Pence warned against “roads to nowhere” and “constricting belts” when talking about infrastructure development in the region. The US has also doubled down on its own counter to the BRI, announcing a plan to pour billions into the region – alongside its key allies Japan and Australia – to promote shared visions of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” region.

Moreover, China shows no concrete signs that it is willing to pull back from coercively enforcing its sovereignty claims in the East and South China Seas. Beijing has also been ramping up the pressure on Taiwan – picking off its last few diplomatic allies and enhancing its military capabilities in the Taiwan Straits.

All of these issues – in addition to a long list of concerns from the US on cyber activities, foreign interference and more – make any comprehensive deal out of reach in the coming months.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.