Trump needs to stop playing ‘Game of Chicken’ with China
By Curtis Stone
Is U.S. President-elect Donald Trump challenging China to a game of chicken? Thomas Schelling, a brilliant scholar who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2005 “for having enhanced our understanding of conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis,” passed away Tuesday at age 95. His arguments are powerful, and still relevant. “If you can get a reputation for being reckless, demanding, or unreliable…you may find concessions made to you,” Schelling wrote in Arms and Influence. Of course, with great risk comes great reward, but there is a fine line between being firm and being aggressive. Trump’s game of coercive diplomacy risks damaging the China-U.S. relationship and upsetting the international order. If Trump keeps rocking the boat, then China may feel obliged to engage in rivalry when China would actually prefer to engage in cooperation.
Trump’s game is a game of nerve which relies on uncertainty and unpredictability. The rules of this game are simple. Two players head toward each other and must choose to stay on course or change course. Whoever decides to change course first loses. If both players stay on course, they collide. This coercive strategy is not how the U.S. should deal with China. The Cold War is over, and the world does not need divisive politics. His game of nerve is not only dangerous for China-U.S. relations, but dangerous for world peace and prosperity. Stable and healthy relations depend on certainty and predictability. No doubt, there is an aspect of rivalry between China and the U.S., but the China-U.S. relationship is much more than just a winner-takes-all contest. Trump’s us-versus-them view is simplistic, outdated, and dangerous.
Trump’s recent comments crossed a clear boundary and he should try to walk his comments back to send the right signal to China. The goal should be to coordinate on a shared solution in order to avoid collision. Threatening the core of the China-U.S. relationship is the most dangerous game of chicken. The President-elect is grossly misinformed about China-U.S. relations if he believes China will be first to swerve in this dangerous game of bargaining, because China’s core security interests are not tradable assets. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs was firm on this during a regular press conference on Monday. The Ministry called the one-China principle the political foundation of China-U.S. relations and said that if this foundation is compromised, everything else “will be out of the question.” On Wednesday, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office also sent a clear signal, saying saying one-China principle is the political cornerstone for developing China-U.S. relations.
Trump’s words are troubling, but actions speak louder than words. At the Nobel Peace Prize Forum Oslo on Sunday, Dr. Henry Kissinger commented on Trump’s personality. He said his personality has no precedent in modern American history but “an opportunity should be given to the new administration to put forward its vision of international order.” Kissinger’s advice to give Trump the benefit of the doubt is reasonable. People can read into his comments anything they want to, but no action has been taken.
It is difficult to say what Trump’s position will be on China, but his comments have already upset the relationship. Trump’s game of nerve involves some real unpredictability and this is dangerous in international politics, especially if Trump puts China in a situation where the best strategy for China is to throw the steering wheel out the window.