What can political science tell us about the recent U.S.-China tensions and the forthcoming Trump-Xi meeting? There are important insights from recent research on the role of leadership in foreign policy and great-power rivalry.
1. Both leaders depart from their predecessors substantively — and that creates uncertainty
Regardless of Xi’s “Chinese dream” or Trump’s “America First,” both leaders have deviated from long-standing policies and practices, creating enormous uncertainty. Xi, for instance, seems to have departed from the “hiding strength, biding time” principle that Deng Xiaoping and his heirs apparent, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, had followed since 1990.
Now that Xi has secured his power base and is likely to rule beyond his second term, how will his “great-power diplomacy” play out? It remains to be seen how assertive Xi is in fulfilling his vision for China — a nation that stands tall in the world.
On the U.S. side, the election of Trump has also brought great uncertainty in international relations. In addition to disapproving of his usually harsh views of alliances, trade deficits and the U.S. global leadership role, world leaders tend to view Trump as inexperienced and unpredictable in the global policymaking process.
How does leadership-driven uncertainty matter? In a recent study, Scott Wolford and I demonstrate that the introduction of a new leader — bringing uncertainty into bilateral relations — may create an “informational trap” where the leaders from either side tend to escalate an existing dispute rather than seek agreement.
To put this in context, even if Beijing took a wait-and-see approach initially, Trump demonstrated his resolve to launch a trade war against China, forcing Beijing to retaliate in kind.
2. It is difficult for leaders to assess each other’s resolve — but here’s one possibility
Why can’t the two leaders rely on diplomatic communications to gauge each other’s resolve? One possible explanation relates to Trump’s inconsistent statements about China. But even if Trump’s rhetoric were consistent, scholars have mixed views on the effectiveness of public threats, which can also tie a leader’s hands. Here’s an example: In 2013, the “red line” statement by President Barack Obama failed to deter Syria’s leaders from using chemical weapons against civilians.
The Trump administration believes that imposing tariffs is the way to compel Beijing to “modify its unfair trade practices.” While launching a trade war also imposes costs on U.S. agriculture, Washington’s willingness to pay “sunk costs” — the costs paid in advance regardless of a dispute’s outcome — is what signals Trump’s resolve. Not until the U.S. imposed tariffs on Chinese products did Beijing fully realize the intensity of anti-China sentiment in Washington.
Likewise, Trump may better understand Beijing’s resolve in defending its sovereignty, after a Chinese warship nearly collided with a U.S. Navy vessel in the South China Sea. Are sunk-cost signals more effective than tying-hand signals? A recent study shows that the answer may depend on the orientations of leaders who receive the signals: Hawkish leaders such as Trump and Xi tend to view sunk-cost signals as more credible than tying-hand signals.
3. More interactions may ease the feelings of mutual uncertainty — and lead to fewer tensions
Although Trump and Xi fell into the “informational trap” by escalating a trade war with mutual retaliations, positive signs have emerged lately that both sides seek to ease tensions. The Chinese government began to downplay the “Made in China 2025” program after Trump called the program “insulting.” Despite the disagreement over their rights in the South China Sea, top officials from both sides have agreed to avoid unintended clashes.
These signs resonate with the other side of our finding, that the escalations driven by uncertainty are likely to decline when leaders interact more, and gradually overcome the “informational trap.” A Trump-Xi meeting in Buenos Aires would be unlikely to produce a sudden trade breakthrough, but we should expect that both leaders will use this opportunity to reflect on existing tensions and improve the judgments of each other’s strategic intentions. Our analysis suggests that no matter who concedes first, over time, it’s likely that trade negotiations will resume, and lead to declining tariffs, as each side better understands the other’s resolve.
4. Yet uncertainty may be exacerbated — if there are inconsistent policies and unclear signals by either side
Even if uncertainty about new leaders declines over time, incoherent voices within a leader’s inner circle will create more confusion. In October, Cui Tiankai, China’s ambassador to the United States, pointed out that it was difficult to determine “who President Trump listens to” on trade policy. Clear divisions persist between hard-liners, such as White House trade adviser Peter Navarro and U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer, and moderates such as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and chief economic adviser Larry Kudlow.
A few days after Trump expressed optimism this month about reaching a trade deal with China, Navarro emphasized that several key issues remained unresolved. Yet Kudlow responded soon that Navarro’s remarks were not authorized by the administration and did “a great disservice” to Trump.
Elizabeth Saunders suggests that leaders often promote helpful cues and silence damaging cues to demonstrate elite consensus. It’s not clear, from reports in recent months about growing discord within the Trump White House, whether the administration has a clear consensus on China trade policy — and this makes predicting the outcome of any bilateral meeting difficult.
Some of the internal back and forth may reflect Trump’s management style, but such unpredictability suggests a lack of policy coordination or clear positions. For now, Trump may gain some advantage by keeping his Chinese counterpart guessing, but securing a trade deal in the longer term — something for which the U.S. president has repeatedly called — would benefit from a more consistent voice in the White House.