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Foreign Policy

Trump on China?

Jun 18, 2024
  • Mallie Prytherch

    Researcher at Centre on Contemporary China and the World, University of Hong Kong

In recent months, scholars, government officials, and companies within China have begun planning for potential outcomes of the Biden-Trump rematch in November. However, President Trump, not unlike President Biden, has never articulated an overarching plan or endgame for what America wants from China. Predictive pieces from both countries are rampant, but many authors have seemingly forgotten the extent to which individual whim determined foreign policy during the first Trump administration. One of Trump’s defining characteristics as president was his inconsistency, something that is sure to have a large impact on his China policy if he is reelected.

So, what will China policy look like under a second Trump administration? Nobody truly knows. Nonetheless, there are three primary aspects that will influence the course of U.S.-China relations under Trump: Trump’s ideology (or lack thereof), the impact of Trump’s foreign policy team, and the extent to which Trump will prioritize revenge on his political opponents.  

His Ideology

Smart, brilliant, everything perfect.” -Trump discussing Xi Jinping in a Fox News interview. July 2023.

Unlike much of the far-right, and indeed unlike many of the various American political persuasions, Trump does not see the rise of China’s economic and political system as an existential threat to the U.S. or to democracy as a whole. Although he often leans on the rhetoric of nationalism (and even nativism), his policies when in office were opportunistic and aligned with personal interests rather than driven by underlying ideological values. Trump is one of the least ideological politicians on the national stage, which makes him much less likely to wage a long-standing campaign to counter China’s rise.

Over the years, Trump has vacillated from one end of the political spectrum to the other, creating a strange and paradoxical phenomenon of a politician who doesn’t particularly care about political ideals. Unlike the large majority of American presidents, he has not used the idea of American exceptionalism to craft policy—rather, the opposite. His refrain that resonated with so many voters is that the United States is no longer exceptional, but in dangerous decline—not because of foreign adversaries but because of its own mismanagement of domestic issues.

Trump has also used this idea of the decline of America to support his own penchant for authoritarianism. He has shown his appreciation of Xi Jinping for his leadership style on many occasions, and in 2018, when China abolished presidential term limits, Trump praised Xi for the move, saying that “He’s now president for life…I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot someday.” If anything, it seems as if Trump looks to emulate China’s political system rather than combat it. The issues that Trump has previously raised with China are material, not ideological.

Furthermore, while the United States may have a number of issues that are “red lines” with China, (and vice versa), Trump himself does not consider the same issues as unnegotiable. With Trump, nothing is off the table, as shown in his comments on Taiwan last July, where he refused to say that the U.S. would defend Taiwan. Rather, he swerved to blame Taiwan for taking American jobs in the semiconductor industry. This does not mean that Trump will ignore a potential military operation launched against Taiwan. But as long as voters trust Trump to handle the relationship with China more than they trust Biden to do the same, Trump has a certain amount of leeway to deal with China in his own way—whatever that happens to be on any given day.

His Team

We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country, and that’s what they’re doing… We’re like the piggy bank that’s being robbed.” -Trump at a rally.May 2016.

Trump has continuously used China as an easy target in campaign rhetoric, mainly because of the economic pressures of a rising China that disproportionally affect his base. Going after China is a political win for Trump—votersconsider Trump more effective in countering China than Biden.

Additionally, even if Trump himself does not consider China an existential threat, his likely foreign policy team does. The Heritage Foundation, a self-professed think tank whose purpose is to “formulate and promote public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense,” is one of the only remaining vestiges of pro-Trump foreign policy experts. Many of Trump’s foreign policy team from his first term have either deserted him (Nikki Haley, Matt Pottinger) or been exiled (John Bolton, Mike Pence). The large majority of potential picks for Trump’s foreign policy team are highly unfriendly to China. Heritage’s “Project 2025” is likely the closest thing we will have to a blueprint for Trump’s potential foreign policy—and it prioritizes countering China at every turn, in every region of the world.

The Congressional Research Service has noted that the U.S. is not poised to be able to handle more than one “simultaneous or overlapping major conflict,” something that has become obvious as U.S. foreign policy is increasingly pulled in three key directions at once. The U.S. must pick where to focus its energy, and the American right simply does not see Russia as a threat at the same level as China—as is clear in their refusal to fund aid for Ukraine but consistent approval of aid for Taiwan. In a second Trump term, military partnerships with Indonesia, the Philippines, Japan, and South Korea will take precedence over partnerships with Europe and NATO countries, which will increase pressure on China. Moreover, although Trump has condemned the military industrial complex, he oversaw historical defense budget increases during his presidency and will likely do so again if reelected.

China may believe that Trump’s relatively good personal relationship with President Xi Jinping will counter this pressure from the right-wing. But time and time again, Trump has turned on his former allies and those who thought they could control him, from Steve Bannon to Mitch McConnell to Mike Pence. Being a personal friend of Trump’s, even one of decades, is no guarantee of future stability. Moreover, China cannot benefit from a Trump presidency by “making deals” with him. Trump reneges on agreements almost constantly, which blindsided China in his first term when a state dinner was swiftly followed by a trade war. Trump’s likely foreign policy team believes that “China will never bargain in good faith with the U.S.” [Project 2025, pg 787], and will act accordingly.

His Revenge

The enemy from within, in many cases, is much more dangerous for our country than the outside enemies of China, Russia, and various others.” -Trump in an interview with Time Magazine. April 2024.

There is no doubt that Trump will use reelection to take revenge on those he considers to have wronged him—and none of the United States’ foreign adversaries are included in that list. There is no indication that Trump is looking to settle down and focus on his legacy; rather, he is looking to settle scores. A recent analysis of over 13,000 of Trump’s messages since 2022 on social media shows that he has “repeatedly promised to weaponize the federal government during a second administration by pursuing revenge, retaliation and retribution against his political enemies.” He has threatened Biden, Obama, the FBI, the DOJ, NGOs, judges including those involved in his own cases, and dozens of other politicians, policy makers, and their families with investigations, FBI raids, indictments, and jail time. This is not a coincidence or an unconscious act, “Indeed, last December Trump posted a word cloud based on his speeches: the biggest word was ‘revenge’.”

Trump also does not care how his actions will affect the reelection chances of Republicans; on the contrary, he seems to take delight in ruining the careers of those that do not parrot his every point, no matter how banal or contradictory. He may spend a few months attempting to play global peacemaker, but similar to his last term, he will likely shift his attention when met with the difficulties of protracted conflicts in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Ukraine. Like many politicians, he has shown that he pays close attention to his donors’ priorities, and for the most part, his donors are mainly focused on the conflict in the Middle East and many hold friendlier views toward China. 

Additionally, Trump truly believes that the strength of his own personality will cause other leaders to respect the United States. As he put it in a recent interview, “If a President is good, solid, the proper person, and you're not gonna have a big problem with China, Russia or others, but you still have a problem from the sick people inside our country.” As long as he is under this impression that every foreign policy problem will work out in the end due to his own abilities, warnings from his team will have limited impact. While it is possible that if Trump is distracted by his vendettas, the far-right will be able to make China policy without him, it is far more likely that he will simply not be interested in pursuing foreign policy, stifling his own team’s ability to function.

Widening the range of actions taken

There is a tenuous agreement among many American China experts that a Trump presidency will create more upsides and downsides for China—that it will widen the range of policy possibilities. While this is true, it often misses an important corollary. Not only will it widen the range of possibilities, but also of actions taken. His approach will be both more aggressive and more conciliatory.

Take, for example, Trump’s visit to Beijing in November of 2017, where he referred to the U.S. and China as forging a “friendship that will only grow stronger and stronger over many years to come.” Not two months later, Trump began announcing a slate of tariffs on China, starting the China-United States trade war. It is a conundrum for the gamblers and adrenaline junkies among us: do the higher highs even out the lower lows?

Perhaps in the past four years, we have forgotten the 24-hour cycle of policy whiplash that came out of the Trump White House, but this is to our detriment. It’s almost irrelevant whether Trump is insane, a master of political chess, a genius, ignorant, or any of the other commonly used descriptors. A second Trump presidency will be unpredictable, chaotic, and dynamic, and the only sure thing about Trump’s policy on China is that there is no sure thing about Trump’s policy on China. 

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