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Why China Can Rest Easy if Trump is Re-elected US President

Trump’s threats don’t work on China, but they could alienate Nato allies and worsen the conflict in the Middle East even as the polarising leader presides over a more divided America.

April 19, 2024
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Zhou Bo
A senior fellow of the Centre for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University
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With Donald Trump pulling slightly ahead of Joe Biden in some national polls as the US prepares to vote for its next president, what might America’s China policy look like if Trump is reelected? My answer is simple: a Trump 2.0 administration will look a lot like Biden’s.
America’s China policy took a U-turn when Trump became president in 2017. But his major legacy is not decoupling – which Biden has continued in the name of “de-risking”. It is something ideological: a bipartisan consensus against China that has taken root.
To be fair, Trump is not an ideologist. But once bilateral relations are hijacked by ideology, the room for flexibility drastically shrinks. Can Trump break camp? A good example is Richard Nixon. Once a diehard anti-communist rightist, the former US president is best remembered for his icebreaking trip to China.
Nixon, however, is well-recognised as a strategist while Trump is a self-satisfied “deal-maker”. In his first book, Trump: The Art of the Deal, he wrote: “My style of deal-making is quite simple and straightforward. I aim very high, and then I just keep pushing and pushing to get what I’m after.”
Such a strategy, ironically, seems to work best on American allies. They are appalled by his remarks that he would encourage the Russians to “do whatever the hell they want” to any Nato country that doesn’t fulfil its financial obligations to the military alliance.
Should Trump win a second term, it is almost certain that more Nato members would hurry to meet the target defence spending of 2 percent of gross domestic product so as to avoid the worst-case scenario – America’s withdrawal from Nato. If this is a stick, it is expected to work much better than Biden’s carrot.
It won’t work on China, though. Trump has threatened to place a tariff of 60 percent or more on all Chinese imports. But this would slash the share of US imports from China to near-zero. US manufacturers in China would take a hit. US financial markets would tumble. And Americans would pay higher prices for imports from elsewhere.
Therefore, Trump wouldn’t differ very much from Biden and his administration’s “small yard, high fence” restrictions on the flow of key technologies to China. But neither man can stem the flow of global, including US-trained, tech talent to China. Beijing is making massive investments in innovation and, in 2022, China filed for more intellectual property than the rest of the world combined.
Would Trump make a difference on the Taiwan issue, Beijing’s primary concern? Unlike Biden, Trump has never openly vowed to defend Taiwan. But Beijing won’t be complacent. Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan visit in 2022 triggered People’s Liberation Army live-fire drills around the island. Beijing’s reaction has to increase with each provocation and each reaction will create a new status quo. Now Chinese military jets regularly fly over the Taiwan Strait’s median line regardless of the Taiwanese authorities’ protests.
Trump’s China policy would also depend on how he could garner domestic and international support. An ABC News/Ipsos poll last year found that three-quarters of Americans believe the country is heading in the wrong direction. A divided America simply cannot have robust diplomacy.
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The wars in Ukraine and the Middle East will surely distract the next American president from Beijing. Trump claims that, as president, he could end the Russian-Ukraine war in a day. This is self-praise, but also telling that it is Washington’s support for Kyiv that is the key to resolving the conflict.
Ukraine, having failed in a counteroffensive fully supported by Nato, has lost hope of taking back all lost territories while Russia will have to bear with an enlarged NATO. The most likely outcome is an armistice in the heart of Europe that no one likes.
In the Middle East, Trump’s most significant diplomatic achievement, the Abraham Accords that aims to improve relations between Israel and several Arab countries, has been squandered. Unlike Biden who has frosty relations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump was Netanyahu’s closest political ally during the four years they overlapped in office. He could give Israel a freer hand than Biden, however much that stirs up regional conflict.
Iran’s nuclear issue would only worsen with another Trump presidency. So far, Tehran hasn’t made the political decision to produce a nuclear bomb, but the more turbulent the Middle East, the more attractive it will be for Iranians to do that. It has already sped up its production of 60 percent enriched uranium. It can quickly upgrade this to the 90 percent needed for a nuclear bomb. Saudi Arabia has pledged to create a nuclear bomb if Iran does.
The losers in the two wars are not just the warring parties. It also includes the United States, which has very much lost its credibility and moral authority thanks to the double standards in its contrasting responses to Ukraine and Gaza. Such glaring hypocrisy is widely criticised in the Global South. The damage cannot be easily repaired, particularly by a deal-maker who doesn’t give a damn about winning hearts and minds.
That Trump may once again be president will further speed up what US representative Marjorie Taylor Greene calls the “national divorce”. Whoever becomes the next president will find it harder to sell the so-called rules-based international order, will find few countries in the Global South wishing to buy into the “democracy vs autocracy” divide, will find even America’s allies reluctant to take sides, and will have a longer to-do list to discuss with Beijing. Then, why should China worry?

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author_image
Zhou Bo
A senior fellow of the Centre for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University
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