Honors Thesis Spotlight: Accommodation, to Competition, to Rivalry: An Evaluation of U.S.-China Relations in the Obama & Trump Administrations

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, public opinion has changed regarding the PRC in the populations of the United States and others, while showing the hazardous Chinese behavior has to the international community (1). Steven Richards’s thesis explores the US-China relations and identifies major events and trends within their history. In addition, the research will explore the Obama Administration’s policies in its engagement with China and the idea of liberal internationalism; and the research explores the Trump Administration’s policies by evaluating its realist theory while identifying where the policies failed and succeeded. In the end, the research concluded: “that the realist approach taken by the Trump Administration was a more successful strategy than the Obama Administration’s liberal internationalist approach” (1).

            China’s geopolitical position in Asia shows only two threats to the state, which are foreign inversion from the sides or internal conflict. The former greatly impacts the development of China’s foreign policy in history and the present. For instance, the Great Wall of China is a symbol that reflects the security issues of the northern invasion. “The only way China could secure its position vis-à-vis these barbarian powers was to ensure that they remained disunited and fought amongst themselves. If any posed a direct threat, China would use other barbarians to counteract the threatening forces” (5). This worry of foreign powers is even reflected today with China’s concern with the United States’ relationship with Japan, Australia, and India in the structure of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.

            In 2008, President Obama came into office with little foreign relations experience but was surrounded by those who were experienced, such as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Ambassador Susan Rice. Under his administration, they sought to build American foreign policy and work against unilateral methods from the previous administration. To achieve this, the Obama Administration posed a liberal internationalist strategy, which would promote international cooperation and foster interdependence (17). In regards to China, the administration desired to have a relationship with China that was more an aspect of partners than competitors. At the beginning of President Obama’s term, the relationship was derailed as tensions increased with Taiwan arms sales and the rise of Xi Jinping, which caused the CCP (The Chinese Communist Party) to make China more assertive and increase competition with the United States. “The Obama Administration’s China policy can be classified into two phases. The initial engagement phase, in which the administration sought to continue the trajectory of normalization and cooperation, and the ‘pivot’ phase, in which the administration claimed to adopt a more confrontational approach to ‘hedge’ against Chinese power” (18).

            In contrast, in 2016 when Donald Trump was elected president, President Trump headlined a platform with populist ideas that greatly contrasted the traditional foreign policy thought (30). President Trump forefronted the idea of “America First” in his policies that would make American national interest the foundation of policy decisions. The America First foreign policy was distinct from the liberal internationalism approach since America First emphasized realism and balance of influence; thus, China would become a great competitor of power rather than a partner. The Trump Administration created three goals with its China policy to counter economic aggression, military modernization and improving deterrence, and regional integration and outreach to partners (31).

            Both administrations dealt with an assertive China but utilized different foreign policy approaches. While the Obama administration failed to achieve its goal of ensuring that China’s rise was not disruptive to regional order, they did succeed in engaging cooperatively in the Indo-Pacific, discussing Climate change actions, and lengthening bilateral working groups. In addition, the Obama Administration did attempt to use accommodating policies when China became aggressive to neighboring countries, which caused the Obama Administration to create the pivot to Asia action. While there was positive growth concerning ASEAN and India, the administration failed to “improve the military budget and modernize the joint force for the coming competition. In addition, the Obama Administration failed to make significant progress in limiting Chinese trade abuses, cybertheft, and other unfair practices.” (51). In contrast, the Trump Administration recognized how powerful China was becoming and tried to rebalance trade relations with the country. In the 2017 National Security Strategy, the Trump Administration recognized that China was a threat to US security, which Richards details is one of the great success of the administration since it will establish policies to prepare the US to compete with China. Although, the Trump Administration did fail to negotiate a framework for trade with China, created tensions in the alliance system, and failed to implement a strategy engagement towards ASEAN (51), the achievement lies with establishing China as a major threat. In addition, another success of the Trump Administration was establishing The Quad (relations with Japan, Australia, India, and the United States) to combat China’s aggressive pursuit in Asia.

Steven Richards is a graduate of the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University. This post was based on Steven’s honors thesis, written by COSSPP Blog Intern, Lindsey Anderson.

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