THE U.S.PRESIDENT-ELECT, Donald Trump (above), had few kind words for China during the presidential election campaign. He accused it of stealing millions of American manufacturing jobs and threatened protectionist tariffs against Chinese exports.
Yet to China he was the preferable candidate. His Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, was seen, on the basis of having been seen at close quarters as U.S. secretary of state, to be no bosom buddy of Beijing.
The maverick nature of Trump’s campaign and his questioning of the basis of the United States’ traditional security alliances had, however, caused some optimism in Beijing that his election would weaken America’s international standing in the region and that his reservations about free-trade agreements would kill the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the economic prop of Washington’s ‘Asian pivot’.
However, set against that the uncertainty and volatility in regional affairs that a prospective Trump presidency will bring, in particular on the Korean peninsula. Beijing does not like uncertainty, and there less than anywhere.
Worse, long-cultivated contacts with the Washington China-policy and financial elite have been rendered for nought by the imminent arrival of a US president who at 70 has never held elected office and so has no track record, no known team and no known thought-through China strategy. Beijing also has reason to fear that Trump’s victory will put at risk the forces of globalisation that have propelled China’s economic and thus global ascendency.
It is unrealistic to expect that a Trump administration can repatriate low-wage manufacturing jobs. Those that automation and technology have not rendered redundant are already going to Vietnam and elsewhere in Southeast Asia if they are going anywhere as China ‘rebalances’. Moreover, China is only one aspect of the economic trends that are transforming the US economy in a way that leaves so many Americans, especially older, white ones, feeling left behind, a sentiment Trump so expertly tapped during his election campaign.
That is not to say that Beijing will not try to score points against electoral democracy, though it will not want to examine too closely the insurgence of rank-and-file voters against a ruling political class. Beijing is also unlikely to pass the opportunity to take an early measure of the next US president, probably by being more assertive in the South China Sea.
That, though, is a double-edged sword. It risks prodding Trump in the direction of politicising the issue rather than contesting it on legalistic grounds — such as through asserting freedom of navigation rights and using the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. That approach, adopted by the Obama administration, has given Beijing scope to build its presence in the South China Sea with a lessened risk of direct US military confrontation.
Beijing’s scope for action now will also be tempered by the reactions of other regional nations to Trump’s election victory. Japan, for one, may see an opportunity to fill a potential vacuum both by building up its military capabilities and by being more active with its development aid and investment in the region. The Asian Development Bank, which falls under its sway, easily outguns the Beijing-created Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
South Korea, too, may end up with nuclear weapons from a Trump administration, a development that would be unwelcome in Beijing, not least because it ups the nuclear stakes on the peninsula, elevating the risk of instability that Beijing so abhors.
Further south, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia are all calculating where their strategic interests lie between China and the United States.
There has been a quiet (pace the Philippines new president Rodrigo Duterte) shift of emphasis towards developing stronger economic links with China while retaining Washington’s security umbrella. That shift will be being recalibrated in the light of candidate Trump’s criticism that US security partners are ‘free-loading’.
He is not the first US president to have made that complaint, but few have suggested that the US will take its umbrella away if its regional allies do not contribute their fair share to the costs.
Whether President Trump will take the same view as candidate Trump on this and all the other issues that touch on China is probably as much of a guess in Beijing as it is in the rest of the region, and even possibly, at this point, in Washington.