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By Lia Isono
Only a few days from Election Day, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are in the home stretch, making their final efforts to sway independent and undecided voters. Just as American citizens are on the edge of their seats over the results, so too are international leaders, such as Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose relationships with the United States will be profoundly affected by the election’s outcome. The campaign raises a fundamental question for Chinese officials: Would they prefer the next U.S. president to be predictable or a wildcard? Secretary Clinton’s clear foreign policy trajectory should be the better option for the Chinese leadership than the unpredictability of Trump, which may be too much to deal with given the variety of domestic challenges China will need to address over the next few years.
One of the driving causes of China’s rise on the international stage is its explosive economic growth since liberalizing the marketplace, especially in the period after its induction into the World Trade Organization in 2001. Consequently, the opening of China’s economy has created demand for labor-intensive modes of production. Jessica Bissett, program officer of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, said, “The Chinese government has to deal with how to find enough jobs for graduating students, how to deal with an over-heated economy that still needs to grow but can’t grow in the way it has been growing, and how to shift to a consumption-based model versus an export/investment-based model. That means that the economy will slow down and there will be displaced workers—millions.” Bissett explained that the Chinese government is using a variety of tools to mitigate these concerns and appease the population: enacting economic reforms, promoting innovation, and diverting people’s attention through the use of nationalistic rhetoric.
How will the next American president impact future Chinese policymaking, given the country’s loaded domestic agenda? Dr. Tom DeLuca, Director of International Studies at Fordham University, said, “[China’s] main interest is keeping the Chinese economy growing and to keep political power. The relationship with the U.S. is important but secondary, and more so today than 20 years ago. All of what China’s doing is because they are nervous of what will happen in the next 10-15 years.” Therefore, having predictable American leadership can ease some of the anxiety the Communist Party has about the stability of the country’s economic and political system.
If Trump were the next U.S. president, the Chinese would have to be wary of potential protectionist policies from his administration. As DeLuca identifies, one of the dangers of Trump’s campaign is that he’s still trying to figure out his core constituents, which compels him to use more outlandish rhetoric on the campaign. When Trump makes a promise to slap 30 percent tariffs on Chinese goods, for instance, his supporters may later force his hand to pursue harsher, less cooperative economic policies with China. There is a small possibility that Chinese businessmen would be able to negotiate and even outsmart Trump, but there are too many variables at play for any outlook to be certain. It would be wiser for the Chinese to work within the status quo.
If Clinton becomes the next U.S. president, many foreign policy experts believe that she would continue President Obama’s Asia pivot policy. Bissett said, “When it was rolled out, the media predominantly focused on the strategic and security aspects—less attention was paid to the economic and people-to-people exchange elements. As a result of the focus, many in China believe the pivot equates to containment—but this was, and is, not the intention of those who created the policy.” In order to shift the focus back to economic and cultural exchange, Clinton would have to take specific steps to build trust. Her previous positions on China’s human rights abuses concern Beijing, but given her time as the top U.S. diplomat, she does have the skill set necessary to execute Bissett’s recommendations. A Clinton administration should be preferable to Trump for the Communist Party because they already have a sense of how Clinton conducts diplomacy and approaches areas of disagreement.
In terms of military and territorial disputes, Bissett predicts that both Clinton and Trump would take a tougher stance on the South China Sea than the freedom of navigation policy America now supports. China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea warrant Washington’s attention, but the current U.S. stance is already sending signals of containment and aggression to Beijing. A more hawkish approach from the next U.S. president could aggravate a sensitive situation. Concentrating on cooperation, on the other hand, could improve each country’s perceptions of the other’s intentions.
Clinton may take a tougher approach to global affairs than does President Obama, but the Chinese leadership should realize that her foreign policy can largely be forecasted and dealt with accordingly. Trump, meanwhile, would have China on its toes. He has rarely defended specific positions on dimensions of the U.S.-China relationship beyond trade deals. A wildcard like Trump has a stronger potential to catalyze conflict than to promote cooperation. The Chinese Communist Party and the American electorate both realize the gravity of the 2016 election. Now all that’s left is to wait until Nov. 8 to see the direction the next American president will take U.S.-China relations.
Lia Isono is a research assistant at World Policy Institute.
[Photo Courtesy of U.S. Department of State]