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Donald Trump inauguration

Just how far will reckless Trump push China?

Gordon H. Chang says a review of the US president’s words and deeds in the run-up to him taking office suggests a worrying lack of an overarching rationale, and we should brace for some rough times

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 January, 2017, 3:13pm
UPDATED : Friday, 20 January, 2017, 8:08pm

Sino-US relations in the age of Donald Trump is a hot topic, in part because nobody really knows what will happen. Uncertainty invites speculation. Many wonder what will happen next, given the new president’s belligerent, bombastic behaviour during the election campaign. He was rude to almost every social group in America and to many others around the world. He regularly blasted China, as a currency manipulator, a job-stealer and fabricator of climate change to disadvantage gullible Americans. He also compared his proposal for a wall in Mexico with the Great Wall of China, and probably thought that was a compliment for China.

But who really knows? What is one to make of his cosying up to Vladimir Putin and the Russians? Is there a sanjiao guanxi, or a ploy in triangular diplomacy, in the works? What is one to make of his thumb-in-the-eye phone call with Taiwan’s president ,Tsai Ing-wen, soon after his election? Does he want to use Taiwan as a “card” against Beijing? Trump then selected Iowa Governor Terry Branstad to be US ambassador to China. Branstad has had a long and friendly relationship with President Xi Jinping (習近平) and the choice is seen as positive for Sino-US relations. And then there was the public mutual admiration get-together with Jack Ma, after which Alibaba declared it could help create one million jobs in America under a Trump administration. Does any of this make logical sense?

Watch: What cards can President Trump play against China?

Trump himself probably doesn’t think about all of this very seriously or coherently. That can be said about much of his public behaviour and his tweets, and not just about China. Trump exhibits all the traits of opportunism and hype befitting a self-promoting television personality.

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And that’s the problem: who knows what he’ll do next?

The chances are that Sino-US relations will enter a tough, even dangerous, period. It is unlikely that anyone in his administration will say, as president Barack Obama and his secretary of state Hillary Clinton did, that the US-China relationship was the most important bilateral relationship in the contemporary world, and that the two – one an established great power, the other a rising great power – had to find a way to get along without serious conflict.

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They may not have been consistent in their words and fell far short in deeds, but words count, and at least for a while, in the early Obama years, transpacific relations appeared to be promising (remember Sunnylands?) and serious minds devoted themselves to seeking ways forward. Even when the relationship worsened, the rhetoric never took on the tone it already has with Trump and his closest advisers.

George W. Bush appears to be a Wilsonian multilateralist in comparison to Trump

During his campaign, Trump declared he would “make America great again” and though it is unclear what that actually means, he has presented himself as an unabashed great-power nationalist, uninterested – even hostile – to the idea of a multipolar, globalised world. He expresses hostility towards the idea of trying to craft a cooperative international order, as all his predecessors had tried to do to varying degrees since the end of the cold war. George W. Bush appears to be a Wilsonian multilateralist in comparison to Trump.

All indications point to domestic policy as Trump’s focus of attention. He exhibited astonishing ignorance in foreign policy during the campaign. His appointments so far, however, suggest that military and conservative points of view will be strongly represented in his administration.

In contrast, his pick for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, has never had any experience in government policymaking; just like Trump himself. Trump is the first president in American history never to have been elected to any public office or to have served in the military high command. The Trump-Tillerson foreign affairs team is the least prepared in modern American history.

With their threats to China, Trump and Tillerson are making rookie blunders that will only hurt US credibility

Other presidents whose careers largely centred on domestic matters all had as their first secretary of state some of the most tested and respected figures in public life. Just think of Harry Truman and Dean Acheson; John F. Kennedy/Lyndon Johnson and Dean Rusk; Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger; Jimmy Carter and Cyrus Vance; Ronald Reagan and Alexander Haig/George Shultz; Bill Clinton and Warren Christopher; George W. Bush and Colin Powell; and Obama and Hillary Clinton.

In economic policy, Trump’s choices are a mix. Steven Mnuchin, his pick for Treasury secretary, is a former partner at Goldman Sachs. Billionaire investor Wilbur Ross, for commerce secretary, had expressed admiration for China’s economic development, but as he moved into Trump’s inner circle of advisers during the presidential campaign, he sounded increasingly like Trump on China. Attorney Robert Lighthizer, chosen to head the US trade office that regularly interacts with Beijing, has been harshly critical of China’s trade practices. Highly controversial is Trump’s selection of Peter Navarro as director of the National Trade Council, a newly created unit of the White House. Navarro is a polemical economist mostly known for his series of sensationalist books predicting war with China and his advocacy of extremist measures against Chinese businesses.

A week before his inauguration, Trump himself suggested that the “one China” policy is an open issue. Days earlier, Tillerson made headlines at his confirmation hearing with comments about the US possibly blocking China’s access to South China Sea islands that Beijing has claimed. It is unclear whether those comments were the stuff of ignorance, efforts at bluffing and bullying, or real indications of possible major departures in US policy.

Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York who knows Trump well, declared in his speech at the Democratic Party convention that Trump was “risky, reckless, and radical”. He summed it up well.

As for China’s attitude towards Trump? As with the rest of us, Beijing is waiting to see how things will develop. But, an increasingly assertive China does not easily suffer threats or bluster. It quickly and sharply rebuked Trump and Tillerson, reiterating its longstanding positions.

This early “Trumping China” does not bode well.

Gordon H. Chang is professor of history at Stanford University and author, most recently, of “Fateful Ties: A History of America’s Preoccupation with China”