Trump’s rise leaves China ideologically safe but facing graver security risks
Minxin Pei says while Beijing may be relieved that Donald Trump’s arrival marks the demise of Western liberal democracy, his fulminations over economic and territorial issues pose acute dangers
The cold war ended in December 1991, when the Soviet Union disintegrated. The post-cold-war era ended in November 2016, when Donald Trump won the US presidency.
It is impossible to predict all of what the Trump era will bring. But some consequences are apparent: his presidency has already upended the key assumptions underpinning China’s post-cold-war grand strategy.
The first assumption is ideological. The ostensible triumph of Western liberal democracy in 1989 imbued that system with a kind of dominance. It was assumed to pose an existential threat to the Chinese Communist Party.
In the economic realm, China expected continued Western leadership on globalisation. So it developed close commercial ties with the West to support growth and development, strengthening support for the party at home and bolstering influence abroad. On national security, China assumed the US did not pose a threat.
All in all, China’s leaders had come to terms with the dual nature of America’s hedging strategy, whereby the US engaged with China economically and diplomatically, while maintaining a robust security posture. And they had developed a strategy of their own that aimed to make the most of this relatively peaceful operating environment to pursue their main objective: rapid economic development. Now, however, that operating environment has changed. With Trump in the White House, China’s grand strategy will have to be redrafted according to a new set of assumptions.
Ideologically, China can breathe a sigh of relief. The advent of the Trump era – plus Brexit and the rise of right-wing populism in Europe – seems to herald the precipitous decline of liberal democracy’s ideological attraction.
On the economic front, however, the new operating environment is likely to be difficult. Deglobalisation now seems a given. That is profoundly worrying for China.
But the most acute danger may lie in the realm of national security. Trump’s statements and actions have convinced Beijing he is itching for a fight. Yet plenty of unknowns remain. If, for example, Trump takes on Iran and gets sucked deeper into the Middle East quagmire, China might get some breathing room. But if he seeks confrontation in the South China Sea or abandons the “one-China” policy, relations could be tipped into free fall, raising the frightening prospect of direct military conflict.
Barring that, Trump’s ascent may usher in a new cold war. This may seem unthinkable. But so was Trump’s victory – until it happened.
Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. Copyright: Project Syndicate