By Lucy Rodrick
It’s fair to say the surprise election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency has been divisive in both domestic and international politics. Since his victory on Nov. 7, there have been hundreds of anti-Trump demonstrations and protests across the U.S. His election campaign, policy announcements, and cabinet appointments have provoked harsh words from foreign leaders.
Over the past several weeks, however, many in China have watched the events in America unfold, silently triumphant. Despite the president-elect’s latest statements about Taiwan and the One-China policy, the Chinese establishment has seemed pleased by Trump’s indications that he will unravel President Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” policy.
Trump’s proposed economic and foreign policies—many of which may work in China’s favor—could conflict with his haphazard approach to diplomacy. The future of U.S.-Chinese relations depends on which positions China chooses to take more seriously.
The U.S.-China relationship is arguably the most important in the world. The two countries represent the world’s largest economies and the greatest cultural influencers in their respective regions. The mega-economies shared a two-way trade of $598 billion last year, and in January 2014, China overtook the United States as the world’s largest trading nation.
While the narrative of a Sino-American Cold War on the horizon has been popular recently, in reality, the two superpowers share a lucrative relationship in which both can profit. They are each other’s largest trading partners and seem trapped in a web of economic dependency: China supplies cheap goods for American consumers and the U.S. provides external demand that drives China’s export strategy.
Trump’s anti-China rhetoric has ruffled feathers—let’s not forget his jibe in September that visiting President Xi Jinping deserved a Big Mac, rather than an official state dinner. However, the Chinese are used to “China-bashing” from American politicians, especially during election campaigns.
Chinese President Xi Jinping was one of first world leaders to congratulate Trump (or “Chuanpu” as he his known in China) on his victory. In a cordial, albeit firm, first phone call, Xi told Trump that “cooperation is the correct choice.”
On Nov. 22, Trump announced that he would withdraw the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership on his first day in office. The TPP is a proposed trade agreement among 12 Pacific countries in Asia, North America, and South America to cut tariffs and deepen economic ties in an effort to create a new single market that would encompass 40 percent of the world’s economy.
China was notably excluded from this U.S.-led agreement, which has been seen as an attempt by the U.S. to monopolize trade in the Asia-Pacific region as well as export American values to countries in China’s neighborhood. China’s state news agency Xinhua has described the TPP as, "the economic arm of the Obama administration's geopolitical strategy to make sure that Washington rules supreme in the region."
Trump’s advocacy for bilateral trade deals in place of agreements like the TPP plays in China’s favor: Beijing has already used this period of uncertainty to develop its own multilateral trade deals, including the proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) with the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, as well as Australia, India, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand.
We know that Trump’s trade threats have concerned China. Global Times, a mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist party, wrote in the days after his election that Trump risked a trade war if he went ahead with a “naïve” plan to impose a 45 percent tariff on Chinese goods. “China will take a tit-for-tat approach,” the editorial warned.
The world is waiting with bated breath to see if much of Trump’s rhetoric will be transformed into policy. His recent tweets criticizing heavy taxes on U.S. products in China suggest his tariff threats could come into fruition.
No wonder, then, that Wang Xiangwei, former editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post, has described the retreat from the TPP as a “blessing.” Chinese officials everywhere breathed a sigh of relief. It is now expected that China will assume economic leadership in Asia to fill any trade void that a U.S.-directed TPP may leave.
Many of the Chinese establishment have actively endorsed a Trump-led America, which looks to be less interventionist and less imperialistic than previous administrations. Unlike the American establishment led by figures like Obama and Hillary Clinton, Trump may reduce geopolitical pressure on China. During the election campaign, a Chinese official close to the military establishment told Reuters that many supported Trump over Clinton because “Hillary is very fierce when it comes to China.”
Whereas foreign visits to China by other Western leaders have been accompanied by warnings over China’s alleged human rights abuses, Trump has voiced no plans for a values-based foreign policy.
As Eric Li, Chinese venture capitalist and political scientist has put it, “relations could become healthier as the Chinese prefer a relationship with the United States that doesn’t try to remake the world.”
Then, of course, there is the cynical view. Perhaps, it is only precisely because they know that Trump is such a poor choice that the Chinese are delighted. Laughing, even.
An editorial of government-run website CRI wrote that Trump has “humiliated” the U.S. political system. Baidu CEO Robin Li has (half) jested about poaching American Silicon Valley workers for China’s burgeoning technology sector.
Trump has been flagged in China as an example of democracy gone wrong. He has been a blessing for Communist Party officials trying to convince 1.4 billion citizens that their country does not need competitive elections or a change from the one-party system.
Trump has also thrown observers’ predictions into disarray with his recent phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and his anti-Chinese tweets. His advisers have made rigorous attempts to dismiss the claim that this will be official government policy. Nonetheless, it may be an indication of tension ahead.
Trump might not be a cause of China’s problems, but his election is symptomatic of a wider problem: underlying resistance to globalization and international interventionism. The Brexit vote in the U.K., too, was a result of these anxieties. Perhaps a developing trend toward nationalism and away from supranationalism, which grants power to institutions higher than the state, will accelerate the movement for Taiwanese independence.
It may be this global movement, rather than Trump, that inflicts the most damage on China’s economic and cultural position. A resistance to large, interventionist powers that attempt to erode national sovereignty is spreading around the world. Perhaps China does have something to fear after all.
Lucy Rodrick recently graduated from the University of Cambridge where she majored in history. She has also spent time studying international relations and Mandarin at Peking University, Beijing, and now writes on China’s relationship with the West.
[Photo courtesy of Day Donaldson]