Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency was followed with amazement and apprehension across East Asia. China in particular was on tenterhooks – and now it needs to figure out what to do.
In the short-term, the outcome suits Beijing’s objectives. First and foremost, it provides a rich vein of propaganda fodder. The venom of the campaign, coupled with the West’s general atmosphere of disaffection and economic stagnation, are certainly themes that the Chinese media have been quick to latch on as evidence of the “rigged” Western system.
The first-past-the-post electoral principles that guide the American and British electoral systems can be easily mystified in China and Russia as a means of manipulating election results behind the scenes by plutocrats and the military. After all, how can Hillary Clinton have won the popular vote and all the major cities and still been denied the White House? In China, whose privileged urbanites are deeply suspicious of people they regard as mere country bumpkins, such a scenario is the ultimate democratic turnoff.
The campaign has also provided plenty of material for the argument that the “free” Western media is in fact mind-numbing and ineffectual. While America’s mainstream media was supposedly heavily tilted towards Clinton, or at least away from her rival, Trump managed to beat the elite at their own game with little more than his blustering reality-TV delivery and Twitter account.
His victory also puts a major dent in democracy’s worldwide appeal. Whereas Chinese party officials are only promoted to the national stage after many years’ gruelling experience in provincial posts, Trump’s record in public office is nonexistent. That 29% of the Hispanic vote went to Trump despite his assailing of “bad hombres” is grist to the mill, as is the fact that white women did not desert him.
This is all a gift to Beijing. But the Sino-American relationship is so complex, and so crucial to the stability of the rest of the world, that the election of Trump will inevitably have much deeper ramifications.
In the intermediate term, Trump’s victory buys China time to advance its maritime claims in the South and East China seas. On this front, the election counts as a bullet dodged: during her time as secretary of state, Clinton was the brain behind the Obama administration’s much-heralded “pivot to Asia”, and was all set to galvanise more support in East and South-east Asia to constrain China’s manoeuvres there.
For Trump, it seems economic interests at home will take precedence over traditional alliances and shared values. If he actually follows his professed non-ideological, business-like approach to international relations, he will hollow out the democratic values through which many other countries in the region, too, feel bound to the US.
Both Japan and South Korea are terrified of North Korea; without the assurance of American support against potential attacks, they may decide to seek refuge in new Chinese security guarantees. And from non-democratic Vietnam to democratic Indonesia, the region’s heavyweights have been sitting on the fence for quite some time: they are deeply troubled by China’s new assertive foreign policy, its military buildup and historical claims to nearly all the South China Sea.
Having watched Obama cold-shoulder first Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and then the Saudis, the US’s south-east Asian allies now worry about just how reliable their superpower backer will be in a regional crisis. Some seem outright dismissive of it: the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte – who endorsed Trump as someone who like himself is fond of swearing – declared before the election that his country’s alliance with the US was over and done with.
Further afield, in Central Asia and the Middle East, Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric and apparently isolationist bent might offer China much more breathing space. It could drive more allies into Xi Jinping’s One Belt, One Road initiative, a programme to better connect China with its post-Soviet western neighbours. It could even see China boosting its presence in the Persian Gulf.
Trump has vowed to make the Saudis, Japanese and NATO pay more for American security guarantees. Yet the government in Beijing is keen to learn from Western mistakes, and will think hard before it takes up any costly military deployment beyond its immediate periphery. Who will fill the looming security vacuum in Asia remains to be seen; besides China, Russia clearly has ambitions in that direction.
Trump’s economic regeneration plan, such as it is, could be a major boost to China’s economic credentials. Much of his policy rhetoric, after all, is about huge investment in infrastructure aimed at catching up with the quality of China’s recently completed airports, high-speed rail and motorways. He can, in short, be portrayed as a closet admirer of the Chinese developmental-state model. He may often invoke the need for deregulation and lower taxes, but to blue-collar America he projects big-government assistance funded by divesting from costly obligations overseas.
Pragmatism, isolationism and non-interventionism are all principles that the Chinese government can relate to. Nevertheless, in the long run, Trump’s election poses very new serious challenges to China’s rise as an economic and trading titan.
If Putin and Trump strike some sort of cosy deal to defuse their two countries’ tensions, they could spell trouble for the closer relations Moscow and Beijing currently enjoy. The One Belt, One Road initiative, for instance, is contingent on Russian assent. If it loses the precedence it enjoys in Russia, China will not be able to easily compensate with added heft elsewhere.
Trump is unpredictable, and he has already proven he would have no hesitation to demonise China if it proved uncooperative in helping him bring about economic turnaround in the US. Whether his plans can be achieved without slapping import duties on Chinese goods remains to be seen – and China has already tried to deter him with an array of threats, including over potential iPhone tariffs.
The last two decades have been defined by Sino-American interdependence on the world stage, with the US cast as policeman and China as banker and sweatshop. But globalisation and neoliberalism have now been placed in the dock; the old order suddenly looks unsustainable. China has a huge opening on its hands, but it knows better than to dive in headfirst.
In a phonecall with Trump after he declared victory, Xi Jinping reportedly told the president-elect that co-operation was their “only choice”. He may prove to be right.