The American media has a penchant for describing diplomatic relationships as if they are sporting events where a win for one side is necessarily a loss for the other.
Some commentators have said Donald Trump’s victory benefits China. The American journal Foreign Policy for example carried an article the day after the election headlined “China Just Won the US Election”. It argued Beijing would reap geopolitical gains as other Association of Southeast Asian Nation (Asean) countries would follow the Philippines and Malaysia in tilting towards China, that the American model of democracy was now less attractive, and because Trump would pay less attention to human rights.
Views like this distort a far more complex reality.
The US-China relationship is multi-faceted with both cooperative and competitive elements. Even if there are gains in one area, these may be offset by losses in others. The conclusion that China benefits is an oversimplification. In so far as Trump’s unexpected victory has enhanced global political and economic uncertainties, it has increased the risks for everyone.
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Like most of East Asia, China values predictability. With the crucial 19th Party Congress only a year away and internal labour and social unrest endemic, this is an especially bad time for surprises. President Xi Jinping’s ( 習近平 ) anti-corruption campaign has generated a great sense of insecurity among cadres across all sectors of the state.
In October, about a thousand PLA veterans in uniform protested outside the Ministry of Defence in Beijing. It is impossible for such a large and conspicuous group to have gathered near such a sensitive area without at least the tacit connivance of some senior cadres.
Trump won the White House by tapping an anti-globalisation mood. He said he would bring jobs back to America, ‘Make America Great Again’ and put ‘America First’. He will therefore want to project strength and his approach is likely to be highly transactional.
It is true that he will be less interested in broad principles like human rights than in specific deals and the image of American democracy may have been tarnished. But these are relatively minor factors, more public relations than substantive.
Another Foreign Policy article published the day before the election quoted an anonymous Chinese official as acknowledging such public relations gains but concluding “the perfect outcome is for [Trump] to lose narrowly”.
The Chinese got far more than they reckoned for and it’s doubtful if anyone in Beijing is breaking out the moutai just yet. The economic relationship may become particularly problematic. China may be happy that the Trans-Pacific Partnership is dead, which is a blow to American credibility. But Trump will be more aggressive on trade through such measures as anti-dumping and Section 301 actions which provide for retaliatory measures against unfair practices. China will be one of the main targets.
And if America under Trump turns protectionist, this will certainly be bad for an already soft world economy. Everybody will suffer.
Will there be geopolitical advantages for China? It would be wrong to read too much into the significance of the recent visits by President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia.
All Asean countries simultaneously balance and hedge. The countries wooed by the United States and China use their competition to further their own interests while maintaining relations with both sides. Duterte’s personal animus toward the US, the political advantage he sees in playing it up and his often colourful and less than subtle language are complicating factors.
But what he said in Japan, the key US ally in East Asia, was diametrically different from what he said in China. He has not abandoned Philippines claims in the South China Sea or the principles that underlie them.
Three days after Trump was elected, Duterte said he would honour treaties with the US. As a shrewd politician he knows that the South China Sea claims enjoy widespread support in his country and that America is very popular with his people. Duterte is playing to the schizophrenic nature of Filipino attitudes towards the US.
Najib has said he will buy Chinese naval ships. He has also bought Russian fighters. But US navy ships are still calling at Malaysian ports and US surveillance aircraft are still flying missions out of Malaysian airbases.
I doubt we will hear anything more about the “pivot to Asia”. But Trump will not want to look weak. By his own admission he hates to lose. Projecting a strong America means that a Trump administration will not forgo geopolitical competition in East Asia even as he cuts deals with China and other countries.
Finally, but not least importantly, if Trump is really less interested in human rights, the people of Hong Kong should tread carefully.
Bilahari Kausikan is the former permanent secretary of Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs