As the inaugural celebrations fade in Washington and the Trump era dawns in earnest, nations across Asia must wake up to the fact that, love him or loathe him, the reality television host formerly known as “The Donald” is now the most powerful man in the world.
But who is the 45th president of the United States of America? Will he be the same man whose anti-China, anti-immigration and anti-globalisation views helped sweep him to one of the most unlikely election victories of modern times? Or will the straitjacket of power and the counsel of advisers moderate his views? Should the wild headlines and signature Twitter outbursts be taken at face value, or is he, to paraphrase some of his closest confidantes, just misunderstood?
With Trump yet to detail the line-up of his foreign policy team, most pundits are still scratching their heads over the likely direction of US foreign policy and particularly US-China ties. In the brave new world of President Trump, uncertainties abound.
Chief among those uncertainties are Trump’s true intentions regarding his provocative comments towards China trade and relations with Taiwan. He has threatened punitive tariffs of up to 45 per cent on China’s exports to the US and suggested the one-China policy – which stipulates Taiwan is part of China – is up for debate.
On both matters, one top surrogate of Trump’s election campaign claims the president may have been misunderstood.
“I have very high confidence that the incoming team has nothing in mind to provoke China,” said Stephen Yates, a former deputy national security adviser to former US vice-president Dick Cheney. “I don’t think [Trump] looks at China under the current leadership and [thinks] ‘just because of who they are I want to attack them’. To me [he] has a purpose and the purpose is America first and it’s about rebalancing our interests.”
Over the last 30 years China has experienced an “enormous increase in trade and an explosion in its balance of trade advantage” over the US, and Trump wants to “recalibrate” relations that had long been too favourable to China, Yates said. But Trump’s aims – and his vows of a tough trade policy on China – were more focused on attacking the weak American leadership of the past rather than singling out China.
In December, Trump incurred the wrath of Beijing when he accepted a phone call from the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen. That call, days before Yates met the Taiwanese leader, and Trump’s subsequent remarks that the US should not be bound by the one-China policy, were widely seen as departures from Washington’s decades-old policy on cross-strait relations.
Watch: Trump talks with Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen
But Yates said Trump’s “recalibration” was not “a way of attacking America’s Taiwan policy”.
“Getting tough on China makes it sound like China is a victim. I think his impression is that he actually kind of respects that Chinese leaders have been successful in advancing their national interests and in his estimation American leaders have not been as successful in advocating American national interests. So it’s not so much about being tough on China as much as it’s about being a tough advocate for American interests,” Yates said.
Bonnie Glaser, of the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, disagreed. “Trump is deliberately trying to inject uncertainty into US-China relations to keep China off balance and create leverage that he can use to compel policy changes,” she said. “We’ll see if his strategy works.”
Uncertainty was a hallmark of the Trump campaign, which constantly wrong-footed rivals and upset opponents during both the Republican primaries and the presidential election. Many people suspect that some of his more outlandish statements since his defeat of Democrat rival Hillary Clinton in November have been aimed at gaining similar advantages on the geopolitical stage.
Zhang Baohui, director of the Centre for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, said Trump had raised the Taiwan issue only as a bargaining chip to negotiate US-China trade relations. “Trump’s acts and words have indeed created a lot of uncertainty for the future of Sino-US relations. However, I am not sure that Trump intends to reset US-China relations,” Zhang said. He predicted a relatively benign outcome in which China made concessions on the trade front to smooth relations.
Others were less hopeful. While Trump’s self-cultivated image as an outsider may have helped him pull off the election upset, the showmanship this entailed could hobble his presidency, particularly in the initial months, said Zhang Tuosheng, director of the Centre for Foreign Policy Studies at the China Foundation for International and Strategic Studies.
“He has made a lot of contentious statements even before unveiling any actual policies, which inevitably increases the danger of possible miscalculation and rifts amid greater uncertainty over bilateral ties,” Zhang said.
WATCH: What to expect during first 100 days of Donald Trump’s presidency
Whatever Trump’s true intentions, it may be some time before they become clear, if indeed they ever do. Yates suggested there would be a “minimum of one to two years of trying to make sense of the new normal” but that the “rebalancing” might never end.
“I think Donald Trump looks at it as a perpetual negotiation. Just like in business you always negotiate to improve your position,” Yates said. “It’s a dynamic world and your profits and your victories are never enough. Your competition never sleeps. If he applies the same principles to government, it means it doesn’t ever really end.”
On the other hand, President Trump may feel he needs to act sooner rather than later. As Shen Dingli, professor of international relations at Fudan University in Shanghai, pointed out, “unlike the Chinese president, whose term lasts 10 years, Trump’s presidential term is rather short – only four years”.
The uncertainties surrounding the US-China relationship are far from one-sided. China, too, has signalled an intent it is not content with the status quo.
China’s President Xi Jinping’s maiden trip to Davos for the World Economic Forum this week was widely seen as evidence that China wanted to compete with the US for the role of global leadership, not only economically but strategically and ideologically too.
WATCH: Xi addresses the World Economic Forum
“For the first time since 1979, we have top leaders in both countries who take a primarily adversarial view of the other, for different reasons and against different backgrounds, and with different styles,” Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, said.
“[This is] also happening at a time of heightened uncertainty globally about the meaning of globalisation; about where power is going to lie.”
While China is the leading trade partner of the US and many other countries, Daly said these trade relations have not translated into increased soft power for China.
Beijing had been keen to smooth tensions with its Asian neighbours after the international arbitration court ruling that denied its expansive claims in the South China Sea, but nations in the region remain wary of Beijing’s growing diplomatic and economic clout, he said.
“We can’t give the Chinese people the luxury of thinking this is all on the side of the US and Trump,” Daly said. “There are a lot of issues on the US side but the specific nature of Xi’s foreign policy, domestic policy, ambition and governance is an equally large factor in office. Xi has worsened and exacerbated them.”
Given potential flashpoints over trade, Taiwan, the South China Sea and what the US sees as Chinese support for North Korea, some experts talk of a new cold war emerging between the world’s two leading economies.
Others say such pessimism is premature.
“Anything Trump states upfront now should not be taken as the policy of the United States moving forward because it will be affected not only by the cabinet and others, but also by Congress,” Elizabeth Economy, director of Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said.
“There are many different factors that will come into play once he’s actually sitting in the Oval Office.”
For example, she said, it was unclear whether Trump saw Taiwan as a bargaining chip or whether, like some of his advisers, he sees it as a beacon of democracy the US needs to protect.
Pinning down such uncertainties is made harder by the fact Trump’s foreign policy team is not yet fully staffed and the relationship between him and his advisers remains unclear.
“We don’t really have any sense for how a President Trump is going to interact with his advisers, with the cabinet, and whether they will have great influence and drive policy or whether he will simply formulate the policy and they will have to follow,” Economy said.
And even when all the positions are formally filled, there is no guarantee his advisers will sing from the same hymn sheet.
Daly, of the Kissinger Institute, noted that Trump had put a lot of people with strong voices and strong personalities in close proximity to each other, and they did not necessarily agree on security and economic policies.
“So expect to see a lot of changes in the first year or two. This is a man who famously fires people quickly,” he said.
And even to those advisers who do rise, Apprentice-like, to the top of the pile, Trump may not listen.
“Just because you’re going to advise a leader does not mean you are in control of them. They might genuinely be grateful for the analysis and recommendations that you have given, but it doesn’t mean they have to take them,” said Yates, who is also the chairman of the Idaho Republican Party and an expert on China and Taiwan.
WATCH: Trump versus China: winners and losers
There is an irony that, amid the uncertainty over what Trump’s true intentions may or may not be, and what advice he may or may not take, the 45th president of the United States of America is in many ways far more open about his ideas than any of his predecessors.
He may have been widely lampooned over his penchant for discussing policy issues on Twitter, but this has “been a major advantage for him in getting around the major media, which are not friendly to conservatives”, said Yates.
How many of his postings reflect a considered viewpoint, how many are exercises in public relations, and how many are just simple outbursts is unclear, but one thing is certain: if the tactic is to keep his rivals on their toes, it appears to be working.
“You’ve got people talking about the one-China policy and the 50 years of US-China relations under the Nixon-Kissinger framework. He’s going to provoke people to think differently about these things,” Yates said.
But on the other hand, there are those who say his more outlandish outbursts should be taken with a pinch of salt.
“Everyone, including American people, China, Russia, Europe, should largely ignore [Trump’s outbursts],” said Economy at the Council on Foreign Relations. “I think that’s really the only option. What you have to focus on is what are the actual moves and policies that are going to emerge.”
In other words, at least for now, it may pay to keep calm and ignore the tweets. ■
With additional reporting by Coco Liu