In the short period of time that Donald Trump has been president, he has not only shaken up Washington, but the world, sending shockwaves across the post-World War II international system. While the world watches from the edge of their seats as to what his next move will be, there are few countries that have as large of a stake in the effects of the Trump administration’s future policies than China.From the loss of jobs overseas, to even the false claim that climate change was developed by the Chinese, Trump has been an aggressively outspoken critic of China, and his inflammatory language has caused justifiable concern amongst officials in Beijing.
Trump has been following through on many of his brash campaign promises through the issuing of executive orders and he is showing no sign of letting up. Should Trump continue to address many of his campaign promises this way, as well as not change his critical stance towards China, it is safe to assume the administration will pursue its isolationistic,anti-China agenda. Coupling all of this with Trump’s severe lack of foreign policy experience, his agenda is poised to produce consequences that range in severity. This will ultimately pave the way for three potential outcomes. Firstly, the United States’dominance in the Asia-Pacific will falter and potentially scale back, leaving geopolitical and economic vacuums. Secondly, China will seize on the opportunity to fill thesevacuums, allowing the nation to rise up even further as both a regional and global player.Lastly, should Trump continue to make moves to advance an anti-China agenda, it could set the stage for possible military clash between the two nations.
The executive order issued by Trump to withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal is a victory for China. The withdrawal signals shift from the Obama Administration’s “Pivot towards Asia”policy or “rebalancing”of the United States’diplomatic, economic, and military activity in the region. While the United States has firm military and diplomatic footing in the Asia-Pacific as a means to slow the ‘Rise of China’, its economic presence in the region has been less so.
To this extent, the TPP was seen by its proponents as a solution for two reasons; It would reinforce the United States as regional hegemon, bolster trade amongst 12 countries, all while also setting high-standard agreements on regulations amongst the deal’s participants. Though China was invited to join, it’s no coincidence that many of these standards were designed to dissuade China from joining. With the United States no longer a part of the TPP, and no signs of renegotiation on behalf of the Trump Administration, the deal is essentially dead in the water.
The failure of the TPP gives China the opportunity to further peddle its own trade deal; the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. The proposed free trade agreement would allow China greater access to 16 regional markets on terms it is more comfortable with. China’s shift towards embracing open markets was highlighted recently at the Davos Economic Forum in Switzerland. Here, Chinese President Xi Jinping received applause when he offered a defense of economic globalization, signaling that China is ready and willing to play a more active, integral role in the global economy. Zhang Jun, the Chinese foreign ministry's head of international economic affairs stated that, “If it’s necessary for China to play the role of leader, then China must take on this responsibility…If people want to say China has taken a position of leadership, it’s not because China suddenly thrust itself forward as a leader. It's because the original front-runners suddenly fell back and pushed China to the front.”Jun’s comments foreshadow China taking up global leadership roles that the U.S. has historically filled. Doing so would give China a grand opportunity to further demonstrate its commitment to its “peaceful rise”and “Good Neighbor Policy”, assuring both its regional neighbors and the world that a rising China is good for all.
While an economic clash between the U.S. and China would be a major disruption to global markets, a military clash would cause an even greater global disruption, and Trump is increasing the odds of one occurring.Trump’s strain on the delicate, interdependent relationship shared by the U.S. and China began the moment he chose to speak with Taiwan's President, Tsai ling-wen. While a phone call may not seem like a major foreign policy faux pas, it signals a break a decades old protocol of respecting the “One-China”policy.
In response to Trump’s perceived acts of aggression, China flew a H-6 bomber plane, capable of carrying a nuclear missile, along the disputed area in the South China Sea. Trump has since continued to receive diplomatic blowback, particularly after his choice for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, who made comments suggesting the United States could use military force to block China’s activities in the disputed region. State-owned newspapers in China have launched a campaign of aggressive words against Trump’s actions, calling in some cases for the Chinese government to bolster its nuclear defense capabilities. It’s clear that Beijing intends to remind Trump that it is watching closely and ready to respond accordingly.
While China has every right to respond to actions taken by the Trump Administration, it must do so with great care. Beijing must craft its reactions in a way so that it not only firmly defends its national interests, but also avoids exacerbating Trump’s critical stance towards China. Escalating an already precarious situation would be cataclysmic for both sides.
Donald Trump is a new type of political phenomena that has caught the world off guard. His unpredictability and lack of experience set the stage for a perfect storm of wild-card events that will almost certainly be an early theme during his presidency. While it is China’s decision how it reacts to Trump, tact and precision will be Beijing’s greatest defense in not only ensuring that relations with the U.S. do not deteriorate further, but in safeguarding key aspects of the current international system.
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Wu Xinbo Director of the Center for American Studies, Fudan University