Anyone but Hillary? Why that’s not China’s best bet in the US presidential election

Tom Plate says Beijing should resist the temptation to root for Donald Trump instead of the more hawkish (in its eyes at least) Hillary Clinton. In fact, it should stay as far away as possible

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 May, 2016, 5:34pm
UPDATED : Monday, 09 May, 2016, 5:34pm

From Russia with love? Things are definitely getting weird. Sure, with China’s rise, nations in the vast neighbourhood of Asia are recalibrating their foreign policy and military-security portfolios with a view towards alliance diversification. But … I give you Japan: not sure what China will be throwing at it next, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been flashing hungry eyes at Moscow.

That’s quite a play-date proposition even for Japan’s happy warrior: Putin as partner? Good luck with that! Looking for love in all the wrong places? Perhaps, but maybe it is worth a shot. What are his options? India? Or – yet again – good old Uncle Sam, the usual default? And perhaps now more fault than default: These are times that try one’s pro-American soul as America’s volatile political atmosphere continues to boil.

The fight looks to have come down to a duel between a know-nothing and a know-it-all

To succeed Barack Obama as president, the fight looks to have come down to a duel between a know-nothing and a know-it-all – between a candidate who has never held any political office, and one who has held only high office and, further, is destined to be nominated in July for the highest.

Beijing, as well as Tokyo, must be asking themselves whether they look for a horse in this race. They don’t get to vote in the US election, but they get to suffer (or flourish) from the outcome.

For Tokyo, the know-it-all candidate would seem preferable to the know-nothing candidate. Foreign policy choices are often cruelly complex, their downstream effects murderously difficult to predict – except (of course) in the smuggest of hindsights. So far, the presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump would apparently let America’s embrace with Japan slacken, even to the point where the world’s third-largest economy and closest Asian ally might drift off ... right into the world nuclear club – Hiroshima be damned!

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Is this real estate mogul mad? To quote well-known University of California macroeconomist Peter Navarro in his provocative (but depressingly China-negative) new book, Crouching Tiger, “Once the reliability of the American nuclear umbrella comes into question, all bets – and the brakes on nuclear proliferation in Asia – are off.”

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As for China, the Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ) government might well imagine anyone-but-Hillary as their best bet. After all, the former US secretary of state has been the proud proponent of the so-named “pivot to Asia”, not exactly conceived in the Pentagon as a kindly kowtow to China; and by crooning sympathetically towards the anti-China claimants in the South China Sea – including the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia – this world diplomat, former US senator and once-upon-a-time first lady has not hesitated to throw sand in Beijing’s face.

Regarding the swirling South China Sea-sickness: “Clinton’s intervention in this dispute may have been one of the most consequential actions in her time as secretary of state,” concluded the New York Times’ Mark Landler, in Alter Egos, his crackling new book on Clinton and Obama that’s superbly revealing about both of these iconic Americans: “If there is a military clash between the United States and China in the next decade, it is likely to break out in the South China Sea or the equally troubled waters to the north, in the East China Sea.”

A patriotic Chinese reader digesting the psychodrama of Alter Egos – say, some whip-smart climber at the Central Party School – could spin it to make a case for the know-nothing choice. More or less militarily cutting off Japan (and even South Korea), as Trump has suggested, could simplify China’s job in East Asia, after all.

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But wait: Beijing should also consider that the presumptive Republican nominee’s stated belief that China is “beating us” by running up those trade deficits might fuel a kind of American consumer boycott of Chinese goods under relentless White House Stars-and-Stripes flag-waving. In fact, China-phobic Navarro recommends something of this ilk: “We … consumers are helping to finance a Chinese military build-up that may well mean to do us and our countries harm.” He believes that China might be inflicted with as much harm with punitive economic measures as military.

Better, then, for China to be quietly rooting for the devil it knows rather than the devil that knows basically nothing?

Clinton, it seems to me, will present China will fewer surprises as president

Clinton, it seems to me, will present China will fewer surprises as president. It’s true that her Republican upbringing beclouds her emotional ability to feel modern history finally giving China its right to fully rise; but decades of adult experience have taught her the need for pragmatic calculation in all things dangerous.

(As Margaret Thatcher once said to me, it was one thing to take on Argentina over the Falklands, but it would have been quite another to sail the British navy towards China over Hong Kong.) As the ancient Chinese saying goes, it’s a losing proposition to try to “hit a stone with an egg”.

What’s more, the know-nothing approach assumes that one can enter the White House with a blank slate and do whatever, more or less, one wants. “To catch a fish on a tree,” I believe, is the relevant Chinese wisdom (that is, it is never going to happen). The wise move for Beijing, then, is to stay as far away from this election as possible, make peace with neighbours (enough grabbing and land-filling in the South China Sea for now), and certainly don’t expect to catch a fish on a tree with a Trump.

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Oh, and Abe should know better than to look for love in all the wrong places; to quote that non-ancient American saying, “Don’t bite off more than you can chew”.

Columnist Tom Plate has worked at the Los Angeles Times, Time magazine and other US media. The author of the “Giants of Asia” book series is the Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles