But that would be precisely the point of making such a proposal. It would lay down a marker that there is a new sheriff in town, a savvier dealmaker unwilling to accept previous arrangements that have not been reciprocated and that do not serve the interests of the United States.
It would make a ringing declaration to the world that the new American president recognizes the inextricable link between human rights and international behavior. Governments that treat their own people in violation of international norms usually act that way toward their neighbors and other nations—and they tend to tolerate and support other bad actors that threaten U.S. interests and the international order, like North Korea, Iran, Syria and Russia.
For all his national security inexperience, candidate Trump astutely, almost intuitively, saw something that had escaped foreign policy experts for decades: he correctly identified the North Korea security problem as having been created to a significant degree by China, and he called on Beijing to exercise its unique ability to help resolve it.
A clear declaratory statement by President Trump that he has no intention of tolerating the sterile dialogue with China on North Korea and other issues would have dramatic, and positive, repercussions worldwide. Like Reagan’s labeling of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” the initial shock among diplomats and bureaucrats not accustomed to straight talk would wear off and a new sense of moral clarity would prevail. It would boost the morale of dissidents and democrats everywhere and put the world’s anti-American dictators on notice that their years, if not their days, are numbered.
Realists will insist that China will only act in what it perceives as its national interest, not appeals to higher moral standards or universal (Beijing would say Western) norms. The realists are right. That is why soaring presidential rhetoric requires follow-up action, something that was sorely lacking after President Obama’s sporadic declarations about humanitarian red lines, the responsibility to protect and the arc of history.
Beijing’s cost-risk-benefit calculus must be changed. China must be made to pay a real economic, diplomatic and security price before it will see a need to rein in its aggressive policies in the South and East China Seas, toward Taiwan, and in its veiled enabling of North Korea's nuclear and missile programs and atrocious human rights abuses.
Those who argue that U.S. resistance will simply provoke Beijing into retaliatory actions ignore the reality that (a) it is already doing the things it threatens to do more of, and (b) it knows that serious escalation would endanger not only all it has achieved with Western cooperation but also, ultimately undermine its hold on power.
Chastening as it is to those of us who opposed his nomination, President Trump, who prides himself on his dealmaking prowess, is uniquely qualified to make Beijing an offer it can’t refuse. His Friday telephone conversation with President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan suggests that a new, more realistic paradigm is about to emerge in U.S. policy toward both Taiwan and China.
Joseph Bosco served as China country desk officer in the office of the secretary of defense, 2005-2006 and is a member of the U.S.-China task force at the Center for the National Interest.
Image: Carrier-Based Multirole Fighter J-15. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/@Garudtejas7