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President Trump – a mixed bag for China

In 69 days’ time Donald Trump will be inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States of America. His approach to foreign policy issues is in stark contrast to that of previous Presidents but for China it could be a rather mixed bag.

In 69 days’ time Donald Trump will be inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States of America. His approach to foreign policy issues is in stark contrast to that of previous Presidents, but for China it could be a rather mixed bag.

On the one hand, it may cause problems. Faced with lower returns from domestic investment, China has been looking abroad for opportunities actively courting the U.S., EU and others with deals to lower trade barriers. This conflicts with Trump’s position, who has threatened to raise barriers to protect U.S. jobs, which he believes are being taken by foreign countries, and has singled out China for particular criticism in this regard.

If Trump enacts some of his threats vis-à-vis China, this could herald even frostier relations than under Obama. Beijing is used to reversals in policy following elections in democratic countries, although they may be inconsistent, but the jump between Obama and Trump could be very large indeed. Trump is an unknown, and significant change or worse – instability – is possible.

And then there is the issue of climate change…Trump is not a believer and will probably seek to end or curtail the nascent cooperation with China on this issue.

On the other hand, Trump could be a benefit for China. He is far from the liberal internationalist of his defeated Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, who was outspoken in her criticism of China on issues like human rights while calling for stronger international institutions/norms. Raising human rights has consistently irritated Beijing, and China feels its growing status is insufficiently recognised by the international system. Trump’s business-like approach with a hard-nosed focus on jobs and trade may herald a very tough negotiating stance, but is it is one that China may find easier to respect.

Trump’s foreign policies may strengthen China in other ways. He has criticized U.S. allies for being ‘free-riders’ due to their lower levels of military spending, threatening to withdraw U.S. support unless they pay more for defence. While this may or may not transpire, it suggests a weaker commitment to the U.S.’s Asian allies – notably Japan, Korea and the ASEAN nations.

Furthermore, Trump has pledged to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) between the U.S. and its Asia-Pacific partners. A U.S. about-face will be deeply embarrassing and, as TPP notably excludes China, will work to China’s advantage.

Any perceptive shifts away from the region will provide China more leverage to expand its influence, especially as it has felt ‘constrained’ by the U.S., recently exemplified by Obama’s policy to sail warships through the South China Sea.

On a different level, the very acrimonious and divisive presidential election campaign, blighted by name calling and numerous scandals, has portrayed U.S. democracy in a poor light. This discredits it in the eyes of the Chinese public and, by comparison, makes the Chinese government’s elite meritocracy more appealing.

Like much of Trump’s policy positions, how this will transpire into actions is not yet clear, but Beijing will certainly be watching carefully.