Many in China have celebrated the President-Elect’s victory, with a grateful nod towards a TPP withdrawal. Uncertainty remains however, over Trump’s tariff threats and the US-Taiwan relationship.
President-elect Trump is set to pursue a foreign policy of anti-globalisation. The ramifications this may have on the international stage are enormous, especially for China-US relations.
Trump’s announcement on the 22nd of November that he will withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) amongst other shake-ups, has millions of Americans fearing for their economic future, but not everyone is commiserating.
On other side of the world, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) watches the events in an increasingly divided America unfold, silently triumphant. They are especially grateful for Trump’s unravelling of Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’ policy.
Popular and recent narratives predict that a Sino-American Cold War is on the horizon. This is unlikely. The two superpowers need each other. Both are each other’s largest trading partners. American companies rely heavily on Chinese middle-class consumers and this is reciprocated by China’s dependence on the States for technology. The mega-economies shared a two-way trade of $598 billion last year. In January 2014, China overtook the United States as the world’s largest trading nation.
Trump’s anti-China rhetoric has ruffled feathers but the Chinese are used to ‘China-bashing’, especially in US election campaigns. The CCP is more focused on the benefits Trump’s anti-TPP stance bears for China’s interests of pursuing Asia-Pacific regional hegemony.
The TPP is a proposed trade agreement among 12 ‘Pacific’ countries including the US, Japan, Australia, Vietnam and Mexico. By cutting tariffs and deepening economic ties, it aims to create a single market that would cover 40% of the world’s economy.
Importantly, China was excluded from the Obama-led TPP. The agreement was perceived by Chinese officials as a U.S attempt to monopolise trade and import American values in the Asia-Pacific region. China’s state news agency Xinhua described the TPP as “the economic arm of the Obama administration’s geopolitical strategy to make sure that Washington rules supreme in the region”.
In response, China developed their own multilateral trade deals, including the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) with South-East Asian nations.
The CCP thus favours a Trump-led America predicted to be less interventionist and imperialist. Visits to China by other Western leaders have been accompanied with condemnations over China’s alleged human rights abuses whereas Trump has voiced no plans for a values-based foreign policy.
Unlike the Obama-Clinton led American leadership, Trump’s stance reduces China’s geopolitical pressures. This has let many CCP officials breathe a sigh of relief, with Official Wang Xiangwei describing the retreat from the TPP as a ‘blessing’
Trump’s pivot towards domestic politics – a move which largely won him the election – is a welcome break for a China keen to have space for its trade and unique development. As Eric Li, Chinese venture capitalist and political scientist put it, ‘relations could become healthier as the Chinese prefer a relationship with the United States that doesn’t try to remake the world.’
The benefits of President-elect Trump for China also take on a more cynical view. It is precisely because Trump is such a poor choice that the Chinese are delighted. Laughing, even.
An editorial of government-run website, CRI, wrote that Trump has ‘humiliated’ the US political system. Baidu CEO Robin Li has (half) jested about poaching American Silicon Valley workers for China’s burgeoning technology sector.
Trump has been flagged in China as an example of democracy gone wrong. His campaign often demonstrated a lowering calibre of debate in democratic elections that engage in petty name-calling instead of addressing policy proposals. For the CCP whose power comes from a one-party state polity, this insult to popular vote systems is met with glee. Trump is a blessing for the CCP’s spin doctors paid to convince 1.4 billion Chinese citizens that they do not need the right to national suffrage.
Despite this, Trump isn’t all good news for China’s trade aspirations.
Global Times, mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist party, wrote in the days after his election that Trump risked trade war if he went ahead with a ‘naïve’ plan to import a 45% tariff on Chinese goods. ‘China will take a tit-for-tat approach’ the editorial warned. His recent Tweets criticising heavy taxes on US exports to China deepen fears of his tariff threats becoming policy.
Trump could be more a headache for China’s security interests, namely Taiwan.
His recent phone-call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has left his cabinet to rigorously dismissing claims that the President-elect seeks to move the U.S away from diplomatic protocol according to the ‘one-China policy’. Trumps actions have exacerbated anxieties for China’s security interests that seek reunification with Taiwan under CCP rule.
Trump’s election is also symptomatic of the rise in resistance to globalisation and international interventionism. Brexit is another notorious consequence of this global phenomenon.
A resistance to economic interdependency would be conducive in Taiwanese independence movements. The symbol of President-elect Trump, having won the U.S elections with a mantra against globalisation could possibly serve as inspiration. This is exactly against China’s interests.
Perhaps China does have a reason to fear Trump after all.
Lucy Rodrick is a University of Cambridge graduate (United Kingdom) with a major in History. She has also studied international relations & Mandarin at Peking University (Beijing, China).
Another version of this article was originally published on the World Policy Institute http://www.worldpolicy.org/blog/2016/12/13/what-does-china-think-trump