By Philippe Healey, account director, and Alexander Farmer, corporate communications consultant, at Hill+Knowlton Strategies China. This is part of a series of analysis and commentary from Hill+Knowlton Strategies public affairs counselors and political experts around the globe regarding the 2016 U.S. election.
Donald Trump’s unexpected win in the U.S. election last week was met with mixed reactions in China and brings to the fore a number of critical strategic and economic questions when assessing the future of Sino-U.S. ties. It has also most likely stunned and perturbed China’s leadership, who attach great importance to stability both at home and abroad.
In the wake of Trump’s victory, China’s social media went into overdrive, greeting America’s choice with a mix of optimism and bemusement, often deriding the American political system. Many netizens called Trump’s election “unexpected and amazing”. Others posted funny videos and memes of the election.
“Thank god, we don’t use an election system in China or our president would be Li Yifeng or Wu Yifan” (both teen entertainment idols), was another popular comment on China’s Weibo where the American elections became the number one trending topic on November 9.
Xinhua, China’s state media agency weighed in by jokingly asking whether U.S. citizens would like to change their mind and be willing to exchange their new president for the three baby pandas that are leaving the USA for China. Later on, Xinhua was quick to assert that Trump’s election success sent “a clear signal that the U.S. political system is faltering.”
Speaking to China Daily, Dong Chunling, a researcher at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations said “I do not envision a big reversal in China-US relations, because with his business acumen, Trump knows that China and the US need each other.”
In contrast with the humorous and, in many cases, contemptuous comments on social media, China’s first official comment on the result was predictably neutral in tone. Speaking on the day of the election, during a routine news briefing, Foreign Ministry spokesman, Lu Kang, said “The new U.S. government can make joint efforts with China to present a steady and sound bilateral relationship to people from the two countries and the entire world.” Pressed on potential bilateral trade issues between the two countries in light of Trump’s campaign trail comments suggesting a more robust policy towards China, Lu said that “There are several trade mechanisms like the World Trade Organization to address major trade issues between both nations.”
More recently, in a telephone call on Monday between the President-elect and China’s administration, Xi Jinping congratulated Donald Trump on his election win and was quoted by China Central Television (CCTV), stating “…the world’s two biggest economies, China and the U.S. must cooperate and the matters that can be cooperated on are many.” Meanwhile Mr. Trump’s presidential transition office remarked that “During the call, 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.”
Will the real Donald Trump please stand up
Despite the optimistic tone, Trump and Xi’s relationship could unravel should the President-elect follow through on his campaign trail promises which saw him portray China as America’s “enemy”, vowing to change things once elected. This would include imposing tariffs of 45 percent on Chinese imports, which would no doubt heighten the prospect of a trade war between the two giants.
In an interview published in the South China Morning Post former U.S. Ambassador to China, Gary Locke, said “If you are into exports, whether Boeing airplanes or specialized equipment to China, or even food, going to China, then you might need to be worried. […] Higher tariffs would only encourage the Chinese to impose reciprocal tariffs on American goods going into China.” Equally, Chinese businesses, which have made the U.S. a preferred investment destination will be worried about the prospect of a Trump Presidency. “Trump increases the unpredictability in U.S. policies over regulatory approvals, the likelihood of tighter scrutiny on Chinese investment […] and also over oil and gas exports,” said a Beijing-based state energy executive, who asked not to be named in a recent article published on Fortune.com.
Despite this, Chinese policymakers and businessmen alike hold the view that Trump’s pre-election comments are most likely the customary anti-China propaganda fed to the American public during recent election campaigns, and that he will prove to be a pragmatic businessman (as his pedigree suggests), cooperating with China once in office. In addition, the potential collapse of the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership trading agreement which had been a main driver behind the U.S.’s resurgence as key player in Asia, will be music to Beijing ears; Trump has continuously lambasted the deal during his run up to the election.
Lack of clarity on foreign policy leaves Beijing facing conundrums
Meanwhile, from a foreign policy perspective, Trump’s lack of a clear China policy has led to questions from governments in Southeast Asia as to whether the U.S. will continue to act as a counterweight to China in the region. Obama’s approach to countering China’s growing influence with the Asia pivot strategy may soon be done away with, in light of the incoming President’s isolationist rhetoric. In the run-up to his election, Trump has instead indicated that allied nations in Asia could be doing more to pull their own weight in maintaining the strategic balance in East Asia. At first this might sound like a plus for China, with talk of the U.S. withdrawing military support in the region. At the same time however, Trump has indicated that Japan “may in fact be better off if they defend themselves from North Korea…including with nukes”; a prospect which certainly rattles Beijing’s administration and could, according to some analysts, spark an Asia-Pacific arms race.
By the same token, Trump has stayed quiet on several current hot topics such as Beijing’s aggressive stance in the South China Sea and where the U.S. stands regarding North Korea’s potential for further nuclear proliferation.
Trump’s foreign policy position (or lack thereof) and lack of experience has led to speculation that a Trump presidency will likely rely on advisers for direction. In a move away from the democrats’ Asia pivot approach, two of Trump’s campaign advisers, Alexander Gray and Peter Navarro, have suggested instead a strategy of “peace through strength.” This could see additional ships added to the current U.S. naval fleet with the aim of safeguarding trade channels in the South China Sea. An antagonistic move that would no doubt be considered threatening to China’s interests.
Trump could instead stay within the traditional confines of Sino-U.S. relations in recent years, but this option seems unlikely when considering his election campaign was based on the promise to shake up American policy, both foreign and domestic. Another alternative would be for Trump to take a “businessman-like” approach, negotiating favorable trade deals for America in exchange for a reduced U.S. military presence in the western Pacific. This is something China has long wanted, though between these potential outcomes lies a host of possible alternative scenarios, with China facing a range of hypothetical conundrums.
China Warns Trump not to defy the wishes of the Planet
Questions also remain regarding Trump’s commitment to countering the effects of climate change. China this week warned Trump not to defy the wishes of the planet after his pre-election vows to pull away from the Paris climate agreement. In a move which could echo George W. Bush’s abandonment of the Kyoto protocol climate treaty, Trump has shown disdain for limitations posed by green industrial requirements.
Despite Chinese negotiators in Paris urging that “any movement by the new U.S. government” would not affect their transition towards becoming a greener economy, they would be unwilling to offer extra cuts in greenhouse gas emissions to fill the gap that a U.S. withdrawal would create, and even less likely to provide funds for an agreement requiring billions of dollars in public and private funds to be transferred from developed to underdeveloped countries. A move away from the Paris agreement would take four years, however, Trump could elect to pull out of the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which would take only a year but be viewed as a highly contentious and uncooperative maneuver with the potential to fuel even further tensions between the U.S. and China.
The issue remains however that we still know very little, if any, of Trump’s genuine intentions vis-a-vis China. Such levels of unpredictability are bound to make Beijing jittery, because like most of East Asia, China values stability. With next year’s 19th Party Congress due to implement changes to the composition of the CPC’s top leadership, a transitioning economy and Xi Jinping increasingly seeking to reclaim a leading role for China in the Asia Pacific region, this is a pretty inconvenient time for bad surprises. No doubt China’s leadership will be looking closely for initial hints at what a Trump-led U.S. means for Sino-U.S. relations as The President-elect and his advisers gather at Trump Tower this week to prepare the presidency transition and hash out what comes next.