22 February 2019
People protest against US President-elect Donald Trump in New York. A Trump White House is a double-edged sword for international relations, according to analysts. Photo: Reuters
People protest against US President-elect Donald Trump in New York. A Trump White House is a double-edged sword for international relations, according to analysts. Photo: Reuters

Trump win creates uncertainty, opportunity for China

Donald Trump’s upset election victory cracks open pressing strategic and economic questions in US-China ties, and has likely surprised and worried Chinese leaders, who prize stability in relations between the two powers, according to Reuters.

Trump had lambasted China throughout the campaign, drumming up headlines with his pledges to slap 45 percent tariffs on imported Chinese goods and label the country a currency manipulator on his first day in office.

He has also questioned US security commitments to allies and undercut long-held bipartisan US foreign policy norms, such as suggesting that Japan develop nuclear weapons, all stances that if he follows through on could upset the regional security balance in Asia.

That unpredictability is not an ideal election outcome for China’s stability-obsessed Communist Party, especially as it seeks smooth US relations at a time of daunting reform challenges at home, a slowing economy, and a leadership reshuffle of its own that will put a new party elite around President Xi Jinping in late 2017.

Beijing tends to prefer incumbent party successors with consistent policy lines. Trump’s lack of a governance track record and his unorthodox take on long-held Republican priorities could prove a headache for Chinese officials.

Jia Qingguo, the dean of the School of International Relations at China’s elite Peking University and a government advisor, called Trump “a symbol of uncertainty”.

“China hopes the United States’ future policy would be more certain because in this way, we can prepare and deal with it,” Jia said.

Certainly, a Trump White House presents China with a range of new opportunities.

Decades of Hillary Clinton’s criticism of China’s human rights record and her insistence on US interests in the South China Sea have made her a well-known, and not well-liked figure among Beijing’s ruling elite.

Chinese experts say some in Beijing believe Trump will prove a pragmatic businessman, willing to deal with China.

“Any type of protectionist policy pursued will be a double-edged sword,” said Ruan Zongze, a former Chinese diplomat now with the China Institute of International Studies, a think-tank affiliated with the Foreign Ministry. “I think he will be very careful about this,”

Moreover, Trump’s criticism of US allies, including Japan, for free-riding on U.S. security guarantees, has offered China the tantalizing prospect of an American retrenchment from Asia.

“From a long-term perspective, this gives China more space to prove itself and it takes off some of the pressure on China,” said Wang Yiwei, Director of the Institute of International Affairs at China’s Renmin University.

But a US pullback in the region would raise other questions for Beijing, such as the uncomfortable prospect of a potential Japanese military expansion.

While Trump has vowed to build-up the US military, in particular the Navy, he has said little publicly about his approach to Beijing’s increasingly assertive role in the South China Sea.

“Trump’s foreign policy approach does seem to be somewhat inchoate and therefore much will depend on who he appoints and who is willing to serve,” said Dean Cheng, a China expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

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