What does Donald Trump’s election victory mean for Sino-American relations? The million-dollar question about what the incoming president’s China-U.S. policy will be remains, as it has every time there is change in U.S. administrations. However, this time, things are a bit different.
For a start, it is likely that many in China breathed a sigh of relief upon learning that Hillary Clinton had lost the election. As Secretary of State, Clinton presided over the so-called American “pivot” to the Western Pacific. Clinton also played a leading role in pushing for the establishment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an important economic element in the “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia, which excludes China. Making matters worse, many Chinese remembered that it was Hillary Clinton who announced that America had junked its longstanding policy toward the South China Sea dispute during the 2010 ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi. She declared that the U.S. was now willing to interject itself squarely into the middle of an already complicated and sticky mess.
What about Donald Trump? Throughout the 2016 election cycle, the 70-year old tycoon seldom missed an opportunity to blast China for “cheating” on trade deals. In fact, he spoke so incessantly about China that a video featuring the candidate repeating the word “China” became an overnight sensation on the American internet. During campaign stops, Trump would shout that China is stealing our jobs, beating us in everything, or ripping us on trade! Trump even went so far as to declare that as president he will place a 45 percent tariff on Chinese exports to the United States. Despite his harsh proposals, many Chinese don’t know what to make of Trump or how to decipher his true feelings toward their country. There are three reasons for this.
First, the president-elect has a long track record of making bizarre claims. One must remember that this is the same man who asserted for years that President Barrack Obama was not a U.S. citizen, and that the father of Senator Ted Cruz might have been involved in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. More recently, Trump declared that he would jail Hillary Clinton if elected. No one is sure whether Trump believes his wild accusations and threats or if they are hurled in an effort to shock audiences and grab headlines—everything he says must be taken with a grain of salt.
Second, the Chinese know that American presidential candidates have a history of “China bashing” during political campaigns. After an inauguration, however, everything can change. For example, in 1980, Ronald Reagan declared that he would restore Washington’s diplomatic relations with Taipei if elected. Not only did the president not switch recognition to Taipei, he agreed to reduce U.S. arms sales to Taiwan in the 1982 U.S.-China Communiqué. Such behavior may help one understand why the Global Times, a Chinese newspaper, published an op-ed claiming that Trump’s threat to impose a 45 percent tariff on Chinese goods was “merely campaign rhetoric.” Things change after an election.
Third, Trump has no experience in government. This makes him unique among all past American presidents. It also means the new president has no history of public service by which the Chinese (or anyone else) can predict his behavior. So, Trump will come to the White House with a “clean slate” with respect to official “China policy.”
In short, many Chinese were cautiously optimistic about the outcome of the election. After all, Trump has limited his “China bashing” largely to trade issues, has opposed the TPP, and never declared support for the “pivot” to East Asia. And, he did not preach to the Chinese about human rights or the virtues of Western style democracy.
It appeared initially that Trump intended to pursue a constructive relationship with China. For example, on November 13, President-elect Trump telephoned President Xi Jinping. After the call, Trump’s transition team explained that, “the leaders established a clear sense of mutual respect for one another, and President-elect Trump stated that he believes the two leaders will have one of the strongest relationships for both countries moving forward.” The Chinese media reported that Xi and Trump vowed to keep close contact, build good working relations, and meet at an early date to exchange views on issues of mutual interest and the development of bilateral ties. But things changed quickly.
On December 1, President-elect Trump took a telephone call from Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s president. No other American president-elect has ever done this. And the fact that Tsai is the leader of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) made the call especially sensitive. So, what does the phone call mean?
Some contend that it was a calculated move by a shrewd strategist (Trump) to play the “Taiwan card” to obtain trade concessions from China. As Baohui Zhang, a political analyst at Hong Kong’s prestigious Lingnan University, observed, “by showing strength at the beginning, he may hope to gain advantages in bargaining later with the Chinese… he is a businessman, and he could be bringing his business bargaining tactics to interstate relations.”
Others contend that the move signaled a major change in American policy and that the Trump administration intends to upgrade relations with Taipei. After all, it has been over twenty years since Bill Clinton’s administration last reviewed (and upgraded) America’s relationship with Taiwan.
Still others argue that Trump did not realize the implications of the call and his defensive “tweets” are symptomatic of his defiant behavior whenever he commits a faux pas (which is often). Building upon that theme, it has been suggested that some of Trump’s advisers who have links to Taiwan set him up. This is probably what the Chinese Foreign Ministry meant when it suggested that Taiwan had played a “small trick” on Trump.
At this stage, it’s too early to decipher what, if anything, this incident means for U.S.-China relations. But one should not read too much into it. For a start, Trump is still only "president-elect." And let's not forget that former president Bill Clinton journeyed to Taiwan to deliver a speech and meet Taiwan's president, in 2005. If a former president can deliver a lucrative speech in Taipei and meet with Taiwan leaders, it stands to reason that a future president can accept a phone call. Second, it is painfully obvious that Trump is not an expert on foreign policy in East Asia. For example, during the Republican presidential debates he claimed the TPP is a trade scheme designed to enrich China. Trump only dropped the absurd accusation after Senator Rand Paul reminded him that China would not be a part of TPP. So, it is possible that Trump did not realize accepting such a call would generate so much fallout from the media. Third, although Trump directed a lot of criticism toward the PRC in his presidential campaign, he did not praise Taiwan. In fact, he accused the island of stealing American jobs. And it is difficult to imagine that Trump will be pleased when he learns about the size of Taiwan's defense budget (assuming that he is not already aware of it). Fourth, Trump’s choice of Governor Terry Branstad (R.-Iowa) as ambassador to China has been described by some Chinese political analysts as a “thoughtful” appointment. Branstad has described himself as an “old friend” of President Xi and is not in Taiwan’s pocket.
Trump’s choice for ambassador might signal an effort to put Sino-American relations back on track. At this time, it does not appear likely that the recent incident signals a major shift in U.S. policy. As President Tsai observed, “one phone call does not mean a policy shift.”