By Zhao Minghao Source: Global Times Published: 2017-8-22
US President Donald Trump is known for his unpredictability in his China policy. However, it is the unpredictability in US domestic politics that is now challenging China-US relations. The resignation of Trump`s chief strategist Steve Bannon has exposed the severe problems within the Trump administration. In the following months, China-US ties will come to a key period.
Bannon`s resignation is not a surprise. He is an economic nationalist and speaks for the disenfranchised white working class. He firmly believes Trump must win solid support from far-right white voters. When Trump entered the Oval Office, Bannon and Peter Navarro, who also holds radical views, become the most "eccentric" politicians in the past few decades.
It is no secret that Bannon and Trump`s other key aides have had their knives out for each other. Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and Director of the National Economic Council Gary David Cohn are all in his disfavor. He also repeatedly clashed with other top advisers, most notably former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and Trump`s son-in-law Jared Kushner.
Trump may have hoped that Bannon and his other core members could counterbalance each other and he could govern the White House as a CEO, which, obviously, is not wise. James P. Rubin, who served as assistant secretary of state for public affairs in the Clinton administration, wrote in a New York Times article, "Most troubling is the way Mr. Trump has allowed, or perhaps encouraged, the creation of confusing lines of authority and alternative centers of power within the White House."
Two incidents contributed to Bannon`s resignation. Trump`s statements after the Charlottesville violence infuriated the whole nation. With Bannon`s persuasion, Trump did not explicitly name white supremacists.
A number of articles published recently on Breitbart, a news website formerly run by Bannon, have been extremely critical of National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. McMaster succeeded Michael Flynn who resigned due to his alleged association with Russia. McMaster purged some staff members from the National Security Council believed to be Bannon`s allies such as Trump loyalist and Breitbart columnist Tera Dahl.
However, the newly appointed White House Chief of Staff John Kelly is an ally of McMaster. He was happy to see Bannon leave the White House.
An article written by The American Prospect co-editor Robert Kuttner described Bannon`s hostility toward China. Bannon phoned Kuttner, who has always been critical of Trump, because Bannon shares Kuttner`s hard line toward China.
Bannon said he was fighting with his internal adversaries at the departments of Treasury, State and Defense who think the US can enlist Beijing`s aid on the North Korean standoff. Bannon believes "the economic war with China is everything."
Bannon once said to the media, "We`re going to war in the South China Sea … No doubt." He used to serve in the US Navy Pacific fleet and that is why he adopts a tough stance on the South China Sea issue.
But Beijing should not feel relieved about Bannon`s resignation. Although he has left the White House, he will continue to exert influence on Trump.
Meanwhile, the decision-making mechanism of the White House still has many problems. General Kelly lacks experience in managing US domestic political affairs, but he is interested in diplomacy and national security. How Kelly will deal with his relations with McMaster and US Secretary of Defense James Mattis is worth attention.
The US must pay attention to "people," "policy" and "focus" if its China policy is to embark on a right path. But currently, within the Trump administration there is no one who can lead and focus on China policies. Vice President Mike Pence used to be a good choice, but rumors that Pence may replace Trump have complicated the situation.
The role of Trump`s advisors outside the White House such as Henry Kissinger and Stephen A. Schwarzman is also uncertain. In the following months, the China-US relationship may face economic friction as well as a potential crisis stemming from the Korean Peninsula.
The author is a visiting fellow at the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China.