For years, the enlarging East Asian sphere of influence has slowly threatened a once-stable Western economic and diplomatic hegemony, causing many in Washington to call for a restoration of American strength. Donald Trump embraced this attitude through his “Make America Great Again” campaign rhetoric, and more officially through his “America-First” foreign policy agenda, which seeks to adopt a more protectionist attitude toward the American economy while restoring the military to its preeminent position in the world.
Ironically, Trump’s agenda only strengthens the geopolitical power of the United States’ largest rival, as the increasingly isolationist policies taken by the new administration can only benefit China’s economic and foreign policy goals. As China transforms into an increasingly service-based, first world economy, and as they strengthen their global ties, a less involved United States will only accelerate China’s process of geopolitical and economic expansion.
From an economic standpoint, the administration has already handed China its first trade victory by backing out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. By allowing Beijing the opportunity to rewrite trade deals and establish greater economic relationships in Southeast Asia and Latin America via their own version of the TPP, called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the Trump Administration has opened the door for China to assert its leverage over smaller economic allies. As stated by U.S. Senator John McCain, backing out of the TPP “create[s] an opening for China to rewrite the economic rules of the road at the expense of American workers.”
Back home, Trump’s push for greater emphasis on manufacturing jobs again benefits the Chinese macroeconomic agenda. At the World Economic Forum in Davos this January, President Xi Jinping advocated for an acceleration in China’s business efforts abroad, stating that China “should adapt to and guide economic globalization, cushion its negative impact, and deliver its benefits to all countries and all nations.” Meanwhile, as Chinese corporate investment in the United States set an all-time record at 45.6 billion dollars, the response among the business community in the United States has been relatively positive, suggesting that the “America-first” agenda will be of high priority in the Trump Administration, regardless of whether job-creators are domestic or foreign.
Rob Lutts, a wealth management executive, stated in an interview with Forbes that “CEOs and CFOs of mid-sized, [Chinese] publicly traded companies actually think Trump may be good for China…They are more optimistic about him than Obama and Hillary because they feel they can trust what he says.”
Furthermore, America’s liberal hegemony is no longer relevant in the post-Obama years. With Trump’s lack of concern for the domestic policies of authoritarian-type governments, China has been freed from the shackles of US pressures on human-rights, environmental, and free-trade issues, oft placed by Trump’s predecessors. One only has to look at the Administration’s clear indication to pull out of the Paris Climate Accords to see the United States’ diminished interest in advancing progressive Western ideals in the East.
Questions still emerge over Trump’s Pacific military agenda and whether tensions will escalate in the South China Sea. However, events so far indicate that Trump’s surrounding aides have successfully advocated for a moderate tone. According to White House officials, it was ultimately new Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who pushed, albeit behind closed doors, for Trump to affirm the “One China” status quo.
Additionally, Trump’s Ambassador to China, Terry Branstad, holds a three-decade relationship with President Xi Jinping and has a deep understanding of US-China agricultural trade policy. Recently described by a Chinese foreign ministry official as an “old friend of China”, Branstad’s presence ensures that China’s foreign policy concerns about the new administration may be assuaged, at least temporarily.
Overall, the election of Donald Trump may turn out to be a better choice for China than Hillary Clinton. This optimistic attitude by Beijing is best summarized in a New York Times piece entitled “How Trump is Good for China,” in which columnist Eric Li claims, “What the Chinese have always resented and resisted is an America that imposes its values and standards on everybody else…Beijing is looking forward to change in Washington.”
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