20 January 2019
Rex Tillerson’s nomination as secretary of state is widely taken as a sign that US relations with Russia will improve after the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump. Photo: Reuters
Rex Tillerson’s nomination as secretary of state is widely taken as a sign that US relations with Russia will improve after the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump. Photo: Reuters

Trump’s closeness to Putin triggers concern in Beijing

During the American presidential campaign, Donald Trump didn’t disguise his admiration for the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, and now, as president-elect, Trump has nominated Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil chief, a recipient of Russia’s Order of Friendship, as secretary of state.

This all suggests that US relations with Russia will improve after the inauguration of the man Moscow helped put in the White House.

Meanwhile, president-elect Trump seems to have gone out of his way to be provocative where China is concerned. He spoke on the phone with Taiwan’s leader, Tsai Ing-wen, and then suggested that the US may abandon the “one China” policy which has held together bilateral relations between Washington and Beijing since 1979.

US relations with Russia are expected to thaw after Trump assumes the presidency. They may remain frosty with China.

Already, there are signs that Beijing realizes the implications for itself if Sino-Russian relations improve rapidly.

The current closeness of Sino-Russian relations is to a large extent the result of economic sanctions imposed by the US and the European Union against Russia for its military intervention in Ukraine. This deprived Russia of western investors and western markets for its energy and drove it into China’s arms.

China has been a tough negotiator on Russian energy prices. Russia has also been pressured to allow Chinese investors to take stakes of more than 50 percent in its strategic oil and gas fields.

The official Communist Party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, published a commentary on Saturday, hailing China-Russia strategic coordination as a stabilizer of world peace.

In its concluding paragraph it said: “Looking into the next year, the international situation may become even more complicated, thus posing greater challenges for the development of both China and Russia.”

Reading between the lines, the suggestion seems to be that, after Trump assumes office, the Sino-Russian relationship may become strained. But the People’s Daily, being the official party voice, cannot come out and say this.

Others, however, are less constrained. Global Times, which is a nationalistic tabloid published by the People’s Daily, was more direct.

In a commentary on the changing power dynamics in the Asia-Pacific region, it said: “Moscow has the willingness to improve relations with Washington under the Trump administration.

Meanwhile, Russia may also use its improved relationship with Japan to balance the Sino-US relationship. Will then China be pushed to the frontline of confronting the US?”

Shi Yinhong, a foreign policy analyst with Renmin University, told the Guardian newspaper, “China will be prepared for some degree of alienation between Moscow and Beijing.”

Wu Xinbo, director of Fudan University’s Center for American Studies, said that China’s influence over Russia might diminish during a Trump presidency. “If the economic sanctions were lifted, Russia would not have to depend on China, strategically and economically,” he told the South China Morning Post. “And from Russia’s perspective, the incentive to develop its ties with China could decrease.”

Meanwhile, Trump continues his tweets, most recently excoriating China for scooping up a US navy drone in the South China Sea under the eyes of the Americans. China has agreed to return the drone, though Trump said in a tweet the US shouldn’t take it back.

Bowditch, a US Navy ship, had already retrieved one of its drones when a Chinese naval vessel took the second one.

Trump’s questioning of the “one China” policy and the placing of the drones by the US navy ship Bowditch prompted Global Times to declare in an editorial Dec. 14 that China’s nuclear arsenal needed to be strengthened so that “the US side’s nuclear deterrence toward China should be lowered to zero.”

Otherwise, it asserted, “we will occasionally hear a certain US President-elect” say things that are presumptuous and “US military vessels will self-confidently come around China’s periphery to provoke China.”

Trump’s tweets seem to have gotten under the skin of the Chinese. On Dec. 18 Global Times noted Trump’s initial tweet said “China steals United States Navy research drone in international waters – rips it out of waters and takes it to China in unpresidented act,” in which he “misspelled unprecedented, amusing American netizens.”

So there are voices in China calling for a response to Trump’s provocations with a steep rise in the military budget and a substantial increase in the number of its nuclear warheads so “Trump would not throw out strange ideas”.

Evidently, China doesn’t think his tweets are funny anymore, if they ever were. In a warning, the Jan. 18 article concluded, if Trump treats China the same way after he assumes office, “China will not exercise restraint”.

– Contact us at [email protected]


Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.

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