A Trump Presidency: Disaster or Boon for U.S.-China Relations?

A Trump Presidency: Disaster or Boon for U.S.-China Relations?

Donald Trump at campaign rally in Reno, Nevada (Source: Darron Birgenheier, Flickr)

Donald Trump at campaign rally in Reno, Nevada (Source: Darron Birgenheier, Flickr)

The 2016 American presidential race has been a source of much discussion and debate. It has been an interesting year so far with an unconventional candidate, business tycoon Donald Trump, officially securing the Republican Party nomination. It is not only Americans, however, who are thinking about what a Trump presidency might mean for the world.

The Chinese are pondering this question as well. A brief survey of various views and concerns demonstrates that China watchers in the United States are concerned about how Mr. Trump will approach China. With regard to the Chinese side, however, the views seem to be more mixed. Is the prospect of a Trump presidency really all that dire?

What China Watchers in the United States Think

On July 20, 2016, ChinaFile asked a number of China analysts and thinkers how the Republican Party should approach China in the wake of Mr. Trump’s nomination. The analysis begins with Peter Navarro, one of Mr. Trump’s policy advisers. In his view, Mr. Trump should not support free trade with China that is not also fair. By “fair,” he means that China must stop using what he terms “weapons of job destruction” such as currency manipulation, intellectual property theft, and pollution havens. Mr. Trump has not started a trade war, as some have contended, but should rather be fighting back in the war China and the United States are already in. Mr. Trump, in Navarro’s view, will be a strong leader that China will respect. As one of his top advisers, this positive assessment is not surprising.

Other commentators, however, are far less sure about such contentions. Patrick Chanovec, Chief Strategist at Silvercrest Asset Management is disappointed that the Republican nominee would be so cavalier about the party’s traditional values such as opening up markets. He sees Mr. Trump as portraying relations with China like a WWE wrestling match. David Wertime, co-founder of Tea Leaf Nation, argues that the best hope for U.S.-China relations is for the United States to continue building a values system based on openness, tolerance, inclusiveness, and personal freedom. As Mr. Trump has shown nothing but disdain for these values, the best course of action for the Republican Party is to find another nominee.

Andrew Nathan, a professor at Columbia University, and Taisu Zhang, a Yale University professor, suggest that a Trump presidency is beneficial for Beijing and a mixed blessing, respectively. Beneficial for Beijing because Trump will likely retreat on the South China Sea issue, but mixed because the Japanese will likely militarize quickly. While there may be benefits to Beijing, the above summary suggests that America will not come out ahead with a Trump presidency.

What Analysts in China Think

Views in China are decidedly more mixed. On the more negative side, the editor of The Global Times wrote on March 14, 2016 that Trump is a racist and that his rise “worries the whole world.” He also called him a “perfect populist,” labeling him “big-mouthed, anti-traditional” and “abusively forthright.” This perspective suggests that a Trump presidency would be disastrous not only for US-China relations, but for other states as well.

Not all analysts are so pessimistic, however. Feng Yue, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences sees Mr. Trump’s popularity as a result of his ability to grasp issues that ordinary Americans care about. Li Haidong, a professor at China Foreign Affairs University, continues in this same vein, pointing out that Mr. Trump is different from the political establishment that is causing so much frustration in the American public. While U.S. politicians are concerned about Mr. Trump’s ascendancy, “the public has found a real silver lining in him in making real change and solving the current social problems.”

Another scholar suggests an argument that none of the American China watchers brought up: it will be difficult for Mr. Trump to be a “global threat,” as the U.S. Congress, the Supreme Court, and major interest groups will restrain him. Finally, another analyst views Mr. Trump as more of a pragmatist, stating that his “America First” policy implies handling U.S. internal affairs first, rather than engaging in democracy promotion or other policy initiatives abroad. There seems to be no agreement with regard to whether Mr. Trump will be a destructive force for the world or a potential boon for China.

Is a Trump Presidency a Potential Disaster?

The above survey demonstrates that there appears to be more concern on the U.S. side. The Chinese analysts’ views are more varied, with some suggesting that a Trump presidency will be disastrous, while others, though not encouraged by the notion, do not see a need to sound alarm bells. In fact, some of the views dovetail nicely with Nathan’s perspective: a Trump presidency might even be a good a thing for Beijing, as Mr. Trump is someone who will do what works. In this sense, Chinese analysts have not only picked up on the reasons for Mr. Trump’s popularity but also see some potential advantages for China.

While the Chinese view of Mr. Trump will ultimately come down to what he does if elected, for the time being, the Chinese do not unilaterally view him as a disaster for the world, but rather as someone they can potentially work with.

Allison Quatrini is a Ph.D. Candidate in the GWU Department of Political Science and is also a recipient of a 2016 Sigur Center Summer Research Grant.