For China and the rest of Asia, a Trump presidency is too big an unknown

David Lampton says the need for sober leadership that can keep Asia stable should persuade Beijing that its interests would be best served by a Clinton victory, however unpalatable it may seem

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 October, 2016, 5:32pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 October, 2016, 7:15pm

Former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously talked about “known knowns”, “known unknowns,” and “unknown unknowns”. In the ongoing race for the American presidency, one candidate, Hillary Clinton, is a “known known” and the other, Donald Trump, is between a “known unknown” and an “unknown unknown”. Both the foreign observer and the American voter can have far more confidence in what a Clinton administration policy towards Asia (particularly with respect to China) would look like than they can have if Trump prevails.

Barring a very large fear-inducing event that will send voters stampeding into Trump’s arms, Clinton is likely to win. Consequently, the probability of having to confront what a Trump victory would mean for Asia and China is not great. A Trump victory is a low-probability, high-impact, event.

What will affect our confidence in the shape of a candidate’s policy were he or she to be elected, conceding that any policies will, in the real world, be moulded by unanticipated events and the imperatives of governance? Among the considerations are past policy actions and declarations, the personnel with whom the candidate surrounds him- or herself, and, the very magnitude of the changes they propose, with bigger changes less likely than smaller ones.

Comparing the two candidates along these dimensions, Clinton, initially as first lady, subsequently as senator, then secretary of state and now as candidate for president, has a track record. With some inconsistencies along the way (trade), she has stood for concern about human rights issues, promoted more rather than less free trade, and been willing to contemplate the use of force and the utilisation of martial rhetoric. One notable rhetorical flourish, delivered in Manila Bay in 2011, was, “We will stand and fight with you.”

Beijing has a long memory, and almost any Chinese citizen can recall the then first lady’s criticism of the Chinese record on human rights in their own capital at the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. Also not forgotten is her challenge to Beijing’s maritime policies at a major international meeting in 2010 in Hanoi. And the centrepiece of Beijing’s indictment of Clinton is that she was the principal promoter of the “pivot” to Asia that the Chinese view as scarcely concealed “containment”.

What relatively little Clinton had to say about China in the first presidential debate last month fit well into the parameters of her past actions, pronouncements and priorities.

Who would Beijing prefer as US president: Clinton or Trump?

With respect to the personnel with whom a president Clinton would surround herself, we see people who played major roles during her time as secretary of state and during the terms of her husband, Bill Clinton. She is likely to double down on the Asia rebalance that was her marquee policy legacy as secretary of state and seek to advance, as she put it in the first Trump-Clinton presidential debate, “smart, fair trade deals”, while still holding on to her misgivings about the shape of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

In a Hillary Clinton administration, we would recognise the policies and people. Analysts and voters may differ on how attractive they find this, but there would probably be considerable consistency with the past.

With respect to Trump, America would be rolling the dice on both policy and personnel. Trump is proposing to change the pillars of post-second-world-war policy, both regionally and globally, and in the security and economic realms. On security matters, for Trump, the post-war Pacific alliance structure and Nato are all negotiable. He would turn our alliances into protection rackets whereby our friends pay for Washington’s embrace. The US counter-proliferation policy would be eviscerated.

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Similarly, the World Trade Organisation and the structure of our current economic arrangements and institutions would be in jeopardy, even though such arrangements have contributed to an economically dynamic Pacific Basin, in turn promoting US interests and welfare. In the 2007-2009 recession, for example, the average growth in Asia partially offset “the negative US export growth attributable to other regions by 1.1 percentage points”, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.

Trump is not likely to win, absent a major fear-inducing occurrence or negative development

As to the personnel who would staff the upper reaches of a Trump administration, we find an amorphous group of not widely known individuals with little public-sector governing experience. The personalities of the Republican Party who guided American foreign policy for much of the post-second-world-war era are nowhere to be found in the galaxy orbiting Trump.

To conclude, we should take note of three takeaways and two injunctions for Beijing.

The takeaways are: one, Trump is not likely to win, absent a major fear-inducing occurrence or a large negative development; two, the policies of a Clinton administration almost certainly would have continuity with those of the Obama administration; three, a Trump election, while low in probability, is potentially high in impact, and will weaken our enduring and largely positive security and economic structures, placing stability at risk.

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The injunctions to Beijing are twofold. First, don’t let your frustrations with Clinton push you in the direction of thinking your interests are better served in wishing for a candidate who will weaken US alliances in Asia. Cutting US allies loose in the current environment is the surest way to produce neighbours who will consider a wide variety of ways to take care of themselves, including the possible acquisition of nuclear weapons.

And, second, it is not only the US that will be having an election – next year’s 19th party congress in Beijing will produce a new constellation of leadership for China. Beijing’s leaders also have an obligation to produce responsible leadership and foster moderate public opinion.

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Only if both our polities pick moderate leadership can we have a stable Asia and the domestic renaissance that both countries so desperately need and their peoples so ardently desire.

David M. Lampton is Hyman Professor of China Studies at Johns Hopkins-SAIS and former president of the National Committee on US-China Relations in New York. His most recent book is Following the Leader: Ruling China, from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping