Donald Trump said he likes to be unpredictable. Indeed, he has been successful in confusing enemies, allies and partners alike. He said China has stolen American jobs and threatened to slap a 45 percent import tariff on Chinese goods. And in a phone conversation with Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen-the first of its kind since 1979, he said that the US doesn’t have to be bound by a one-China policy unless it can make a deal with China on other things.

But a Chinese spokesman has already made it clear that if the one-China principle is not upheld, the development of China-US relations and bilateral cooperation in important areas is out of the question. Today China’s economy already accounts for 63 percent of that of the United States. Should Trump initiate a trade war between the two largest economies in the world, China won’t be the only loser.

However, there are things that could put China and the US on a collision course. The fear is that incidents, such as a Chinese J-8 fighter’s collision with a US EP-3 in 2001 or the standoff between the USNS Impeccable and the USS Cowpens with Chinese vessels in 2009 and 2013, and the deadly close encounter between a Chinese J-11B fighter with a USN P-8 Poseidon in 2014, could see the two giants “sleepwalking” into a war. An incident between China and Japan around the disputed islands in the East China Sea or in their overlapping Air Defense Identification Zones could also lead to a conflict that involves the US as Japan’s ally.

Whether it acknowledges it or not, the US is declining-otherwise Trump would not need to declare he wants to “make America great again”. And, like it or not, China is still rising, although its economy has slowed. The first Chinese aircraft carrier has become operational and a second one is in the works.

The US needs to do some soul-searching on a simple question: How many military secrets does China have that justifies the US’ daily intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance that has lasted for decades. This is the root cause of the incidents which occur in China’s exclusive economic zones or in the South China Sea.

In other words, if there is no US intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance, there will not be an incident.

True, the two countries have signed The Rules of Behavior for Safety of Maritime and Air Encounter between China and the US-a milestone in confidence building and avoiding a crisis, and pledged to do more exercises to familiarize themselves with good seamanship and airmanship. But if a stronger China believes that the US’ intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance activities in China’s exclusive economic zones are a hostile activity that it needs to counter, there is the risk of another incident.

A healthy China-US relationship can only be managed through dynamic leadership, firm institutions and strong confidence building measures. A head of state should be accountable and, in a way, be predictable. Unpredictability is a dangerous hat to wear. It only adds uncertainty and breeds miscalculations.

It remains to be seen if the US will continue its “freedom of navigation” operations in the South China Sea under the Trump administration. Thanks to a U-turn in the relationship between China and the Philippines largely spearheaded by President Rodrigo Duterte, the tensions in the South China Sea have calmed down. Any further US intrusion into the waters of China-controlled islands or reefs will only show the US to be the troublemaker.

Like it or not, the world has to deal with a Trump as US president. But being unpredictable won’t be his secret weapon. It will be his Achilles’ heel.

By Zhu Bo | China Daily

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