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Foreign Policy

President-elect Trump’s China Policy

Nov 28 , 2016
  • Yin Chengde

    Research Fellow, China Foundation for International Studies
Donald Trump emerged as winner of the most hotly contested presidential election in recent memory, now in waiting to be officially sworn in as the 48th president of the United States. As both Trump and Secretary Hillary Clinton made open attacks against China during their campaigns, it was believed that would be the position of whomever occupies the White House irrespective of party line. Some US academics did argue that the “devil you know” (Clinton) was after all better than the “devil you don’t know” (Trump), perceiving Trump as the more hawkish against Chin of the two candidates. For this argument, the author begs to differ. 
Truly, Clinton is a seasoned politician who made no secret of her hawkish stance against China, underscored by her hardline intent to “contain China with missiles and alliance countries”, not to mention she was the chief architect behind the US “pivot to Asia” , a keenly pursued strategy with China in mind. As president, Clinton would probably have pursued a hardline policy to contain China.  
Trump also resorted to the China-bashing typical of almost every presidential campaign, such as accusing China of conducting unfair trade, at the cost of $500 billion per year for the US, and advocating a 45% tariff on Chinese goods that could trigger a “trade war” against China. On the political front, Trump attacked China’s stance on the South China Sea and on North Korea, and accused China of engaging in cyberattacks against US interests. In the meanwhile, Trump has demonstrated an inclination to approach US-China relations differently. He described in one of his major foreign-policy speeches that US China relations should be based on common interests, and both sides should put aside differences, not to interfere in each other’s affairs, seek peaceful coexistence and grow bilateral ties together, and capped it all by concluding a strong US is a country that could become a good friend to China. Such generous overtures by a US presidential candidate to China are rarely seen and it certainly takes a lot of courage to do so. 
Trump’s statements suggest that he may resort to a two-pronged approach of cooperation and containment towards China. Economic policies may be more stringent at the prospect of more trade frictions between the two countries. But some of his campaign promises may well just be bluffing that would not be delivered on, such as the exorbitant trade tariffs. On the political front, Trump may be less aggressive when he actually assumes the presidency, such as on the South China Sea and human rights. On the whole, under the watch of President Trump, there is likely to be more positive development in China US relations when compared with the previous administration, underpinned by three rationales. 
First, Trump’s political philosophy centers on “make America first”, which may work in favor of China US relations. Trump may somewhat reverse of the expansionary policy of the Obama administration in favor of a foreign policy of retrenchment. Trump lashed out on Obama’s foreign policy as a “disaster”, as the wars in the Middle East cost the US heftily both in economic and military terms, while terrorism festers with seemingly little restraint and still constitutes a grave threat to US security. He said that he would pursue a foreign policy of peace to replace the current foreign policy of disarray, and would not resort to spreading American universal values or democracy to other countries, while seeking to work with China and Russia to foster friendship. Trump’s foreign policy philosophy marks a departure from the “politically correct” policies championed by the elites of the Washington establishment. These are sound and sensible ideas, and when delivered, they will usher in a new era in US politics, and contribute to stable and sound development of China-US relations.  
Second, China-US relations will continue to be highly interdependent, which dictates that the positive overall tone of bilateral ties will remain unchanged. As the two biggest economies in the world, permanent members of the Security Council, and nuclear powers, China and the US each have a great stake in each other’s stability and security in the long run. That is why not a single previous US president would risk the shared future of China and the US. Since the establishment of diplomatic relations 37 years ago, bilateral relations grew fast, and both countries have become each other’s close economic and trade partners. US domestic statistics find that economic and trade ties between the two countries would add 0.7% to US GDP growth and trim prices by 0.8%, thus saving $100 billion for average consumers. Without such ties, the US economy would shrink by one-third and prices would go up by one-third — undermining US status as the heart of global financial system. This is a price that the US could ill-afford. Trump aims to maximize US interests and rejuvenate the US economy, which means cooperation with China is an important anchor.   
Finally, Trump is not ideologically driven and is less biased against China: He has eight or nine companies operating in China, with business ties booming with Chinese partners. His business passion for China is reciprocated, with opinion polls show that 87.3% of Chinese polled were in favor of Trump on the eve of the presidential debate. These points will lay a solid foundation for improving understanding and developing constructive ties with China.
China-US relations have shown positive momentum recently. President Xi Jinping sent a congratulatory message to President-elect Trump after the result was announced, and in a phone conversation on Nov 14, both leaders agreed to strengthen cooperation for win-win outcomes to further grow bilateral ties, and will stay in close contact and develop good working relations. China-US relations are off to a good start in the wake of Trump’s election. We in China all look forward to a new chapter of China-US relations, to be anchored by the new policy and new thinking championed by Trump. 
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