China-US relations

Will Donald Trump make China great again?

Patrick Mendis says the new president will soon realise that an America-first agenda won’t work without a global supply chain – and China will figure in the deals he needs to strike

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 December, 2016, 5:42pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 December, 2016, 7:13pm

Unpredictability is the new governing principle in the United States, and not only in domestic policies. President-elect Donald Trump’s often changing foreign policy positions and unorthodox diplomatic exchanges have made the traditionally reliable US an unpredictable partner in global affairs, especially in the Indo-Pacific region.

Unpredictability may well be the new normal as “the indispensable nation” appears to be isolating itself from international trade relations. Trump has vowed to terminate the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) on his first day in the White House. He has, however, been conspicuously silent on his other campaign promise to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta). Nonetheless, he has been clear about his intention to renegotiate the treaty with Mexico and Canada.

By ending the TPP trade pact, China would happily expand its domain of influence in the Pacific Rim while other American allies and friends inevitably look for a more reliable partner in the neighbourhood. As these geopolitical realities set in, will his campaign promises to “Make America Great Again” eventually default to “Making China Great Again”?

An assertive China is taking note that a “declining” America is giving up on its founding trade vision and empowering it with China’s commercial mission through the “One Belt, One Road” strategy. At the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Peru last month, President Xi Jinping (習近平) suggested that China would be open to TPP member nations joining the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership supported by Beijing, along with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

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Cancelling the colossal 12-nation trade pact and even renegotiating Nafta is no panacea for America’s domestic social decay, racial tensions and economic problems, which are largely attributed to technological advancements, demographic changes, corporate strategies and taxation structures.

It is likely that, once in office, Trump may realise that the checks and balances in US government make governing a country different from running a private enterprise. Wall Street, US multinationals and the US chambers of commerce would certainly challenge Trump on his trade and foreign policy positions.

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Nevertheless, Trump will have greater flexibility in the White House.

The Trump administration will certainly change course, especially in dealing with China.

Once Congress gets involved, the president may change his mind again. Thus, a potential renegotiation and rebranding of the TPP into a “Trump-Pacific Power” might be possible with bilateral trade agreements with each partner. He seems to believe bilaterally negotiated pacts will “bring jobs and industry back onto American shores” by using the techniques and insights expounded in his 1987 book, The Art of the Deal.

As the self-professed titan of deal-making, Trump could “Make America Great Again” by simply embracing, for political reasons, the founding vision: “Commerce with all nations, alliance with none, should be our motto. Money, not morality, is the principle commerce of civilised nations. Peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations; entangling alliances with none.”

Acting more like a Jeffersonian Republican, he may trade with everybody, like the Chinese do.

Although during the presidential campaign, Trump accused Beijing of “raping” the US with its trade policies, once he realises the mutually beneficial trade relationship is more complicated than his contradictory comments, he will have no choice but to strengthen the Sino-US bond.

An assertive China is taking note that America is giving up on its founding trade vision

To implement his “America First” agenda in “producing steel, building cars, or curing disease” in “our great homeland”, Trump must depend on the global supply chain. When the Trump White House begins to deal with other countries, the elephant in the room during every trade negotiation will be China.

Ignoring China is a mistake. The Sino-US relationship has been mutually beneficial.

With Trump’s business acumen as a dealmaker, the Trump presidency is generally viewed as being better for China than having Hillary Clinton in the White House.

With Wall Street billionaires and millionaires in the cabinet, Trump could reconsider joining the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Investment opportunities in gigantic belt and road projects would be a bonanza for his circle of friends and financiers.

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Trump has already signalled that he may use alternative leverage to win over the Pacific Rim nations which would otherwise lose to China. In addition to meeting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and speaking to President Xi, his other so-called cavalier phone conversations with leaders of Australia, the Philippines, Pakistan and most recently Taiwan were strategic messages – as he exemplified during his unorthodox presidential campaign and continued tweeting on China.

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The Trump White House may use these countries tactically through bilateral engagements to hedge against China. For some conservative Republicans, the Obama foreign policy towards China – and its assertive behaviour in the East and South China seas, the Korean peninsula, and relations with Taiwan – was an utter failure, like the policies in Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and elsewhere. Unlike Barack Obama’s multilateral approach to these conflicts, the Trump administration may choose a bilateral approach, as China does in the South China Sea over territorial tussles with the Philippines and Vietnam.

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While signalling these leverage points, the Trump White House is more likely to simultaneously accelerate the ongoing US-China bilateral investment treaty. With all this unconventional diplomatic manoeuvring in progress, Trump’s strategy may also force Beijing to give up support for inefficient state-owned enterprises that the Obama administration failed to address.

Given all this, the Trump presidency can hardly “Make America Great Again” without “Making China Great Again”. Just as Xi’s belt and road initiative is designed to revive Chinese history and culture, which was once admired by the US founding fathers, President-elect Trump needs to revisit Sino-American history before seeking to pressure an increasingly assertive China.

Prosperity for the US and China is connected. No matter what the effects of a Trump White House on China and the rest of the world, one thing is predictable: the US will have to accept China’s rise.

Patrick Mendis is an associate-in-research at the Fairbank Centre for Chinese Studies, Harvard University. The views expressed here are those of the author. He will give a public lecture on “The Future of President Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative: Challenges and Opportunities under US President Trump” on Friday, December 16, at the University of Hong Kong