Tough-talking loose cannon or seasoned status quo: how the US choice for president will affect China

Alek Chance says despite many banking on the promise of change, the fact that it would come in the form of blustering Donald Trump should make the risks plain to all

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 October, 2016, 5:50pm
UPDATED : Monday, 03 October, 2016, 8:01pm

Predictions abound regarding the future of US foreign policy under either a Clinton or Trump presidency. While much of the campaign’s rhetoric and analysis suggest that both candidates would usher in significant changes in US policy, in reality the choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is a choice between predictable continuity and fundamental unpredictability.

This applies, in all likelihood, to the US-China relationship. While many may welcome the prospect of change, America, China and the world should be wary of the risks.

What would the victory of either of these candidates mean for US-China relations in the near term?

Answering this question is rendered difficult by the fact that China issues have been eclipsed by talk of Islamic State, Russia and terrorism, and domestic issues greatly overshadow foreign policy to begin with.

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For the most part, it is Trump who invokes China: it is a currency manipulator that steals American jobs; its assertiveness in the South China Sea is proof of US President Barack Obama’s weakness.

Clinton’s comments on China are typically more measured. In short, despite a year of bad press for Beijing regarding the South China Sea, this election has not been marked by any unusual amount of “China bashing”.

Some Americans and Chinese have speculated that Clinton would introduce heightened tensions between Beijing and Washington. She is recognised to be unpopular in China for her comments on human rights issues, and is generally reputed to be a hawk. This latter charge has been propagated on the left of American politics but is now espoused by some critics on the right.

Her recent speech in Cincinnati, in which she reiterated most of the tropes associated with “American exceptionalism”, inspired new rounds of anxiety in this regard. Clinton is also recognised as an author of Obama’s “pivot to Asia”, which is regarded in many quarters in China as just the latest American attempt to hinder China’s rise.

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Clinton’s defenders have pointed out her instinctive reliance on diplomacy in dealing with China. Moreover, the kind of interventionism she has supported in the past is unlikely to seem very appealing in the future, especially in the Asia-Pacific context.

A glance at Clinton’s preview of the pivot, a 2011 article in Foreign Policy magazine, hardly shows her to be a hawkish voice on China compared to many in Washington. It commits the US to a policy of engagement and highlights her and [former Treasury secretary] Timothy Geithner’s creation of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue.

During the September 26 debate with Trump, Clinton passed on an opportunity to score points against China by focusing a response about cyberattacks on Russia instead.

What is discernible in [Trump’s] rhetoric is not a comprehensive critique of the status quo but a populist fixation on toughness

Some Chinese and US commentators argue that the unknown prospects of a Trump presidency might be preferable to the continuation of an undesired status quo of “American hegemony” or confrontations with China over ideological matters. At this point, we do know enough about Trump to determine that this is a risky bet.

Trump has indeed shown a willingness to abandon the “bipartisan consensus” on foreign policy and discard many principles traditionally espoused by American leaders.

He has stated that he doesn’t like the idea of American exceptionalism, repeatedly praises authoritarian leaders and their methods, and displays ambivalence about US allies in Europe and East Asia. While Republican voters surprisingly don’t seem to mind these heresies, Republican foreign policy experts have flocked to endorse Clinton.

But losing the support of the Washington foreign policy elite is not proof that Trump espouses a principled and comprehensive alternative to their views.

A few brave efforts have been made to impose some coherence upon his vacuous and contradictory pronouncements but, in truth, Trump’s views on international politics are unsystematic and remain fundamentally ambiguous.

His “America First” slogan might seem to imply a more isolationist or restrained foreign policy, but he also wishes to increase military capabilities and harps on the conceit that the US military is an underfunded, weak, “disaster”.

What is discernible in his rhetoric is not a comprehensive critique of the status quo but a populist fixation on toughness.

This appears in a few main forms in his rhetoric: military strength, strength at the bargaining table, and a willingness to say tough things.

Toughness also means a denigration of diplomatic solutions and non-military activities.

Thus, even as he commits the US to continued involvement in the Middle East, he promises Americans won’t be foolish enough to get involved in “nation building” there.

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Trump has promised to adopt this posture with China. He has proposed stepping up US military activities in the South and East China seas in response to China building what he believes are “fortresses the likes of which the world has never seen”.

At the bargaining table, Trump promises to use what he claims is the United States’ “enormous power” over China to correct the bilateral trade imbalance and end China’s alleged currency devaluation.

Along the way, he suggests that American leverage is sufficient to compel China to “solve that [North Korea] problem for us”. At the debate, he even suggested he could get China to “go into” North Korea at his behest.

Trump’s reduction of diplomacy to zero-sum battles of will doesn’t bode well for the US-China relationship, which relies greatly on nuanced and sensitive diplomacy. His preoccupation with toughness and evident lack of understanding of strategic matters would multiply risks at a time when an emerging security dilemma must be carefully managed.

As such, while Clinton may represent a foreign policy status quo that irritates many Chinese and some US sensibilities, the predictable downsides to this approach are more tolerable to everyone than the risks presented by an unpredictable and combative Trump.

Alek Chance is research fellow at the Institute for China-America Studies in Washington