What Will A Trump Presidency Mean For China?

Nov 10, 2016
Originally published on November 10, 2016 9:19 am

The response of China's state-controlled media to Donald Trump's victory seemed almost gleeful. Xinhua wrote that the 2016 presidential election "sent a clear signal that the U.S. political system is faltering," and regular CCTV guest Zhang Shaozhang gushed "Trump wins, as expected!" on his Weibo page.

Zhang, a military professor at the People's Liberation Army National Defense University who holds the rank of rear admiral in China's navy, went on to write: "Trump doesn't play by the rules and he's hard to predict, but there's one thing I'm certain of: He'll turn the world's number-one economy into number two. Yes he can!"

As a candidate, Trump was considered "a clown" by China's state media, someone whose campaign pledges to slap tariffs on Chinese goods shouldn't be taken seriously. But now that Trump has won, China's leadership is likely taking a long, hard look at how a Trump presidency may change their relationship with (still) the world's largest economy.

It won't be easy to find answers. Unlike U.S. presidents before him, Trump has no record in public service to analyze. And his rhetoric on the campaign trail has never veered from the vitriolic.

Trump has labeled China a currency manipulator and a dirty-dealing opportunist.

"We can't continue to allow China to rape our country," Trump said of China's trade policies at a campaign stop in Maine in early May. "It's the greatest theft in the history of the world!"

Aside from heated campaign rhetoric, though, there are hints from advisers of what a Trump presidency might mean for China. Peter Navarro, an economist at the University of California, Irvine, is one of them.

Trump himself has helped plug Navarro's book and video documentary, Death by China, a scathing look into China's impact on the U.S. manufacturing sector. The trailer features an animation of a Chinese dagger plunging into a map of the United States and drawing blood.

"Trump will never again sacrifice the U.S. economy on the altar of foreign policy by entering into bad trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement, allowing China into the World Trade Organization and passing the proposed [Trans-Pacific Partnership]," wrote Navarro in Foreign Policy earlier this week.

On countering China's geopolitical influence, Navarro and co-author Alexander Gray criticize the Obama administration's "pivot" to Asia as lacking teeth, promising that as president, Trump would rebuild the U.S. Navy, adding more than 70 ships to its current fleet to protect trade channels in the South China Sea.

This assessment appears counter to Trump's campaign rhetoric, in which he hinted at re-evaluating U.S. military alliances, possibly bringing Pax Americana to an end in the Asia-Pacific region.

The problem, of course, is that China observers have little to go on aside from Trump's campaign polemics and writings from advisers who have never met their boss. It's possible that Trump himself isn't clear yet on how to manage China.

What is clear is that China's leaders, who are spending more than ever on expanding the country's military capabilities, will be watching President-elect Trump more carefully than ever.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


Let's hear now what a Trump presidency could mean for America's sometimes troubled relationship with China. During his presidential campaign, President-elect Donald Trump was unequivocal about his feelings on the matter.


DONALD TRUMP: We can't continue to allow China to rape our country - and that's what they're doing. It's the greatest theft in the history of the world.

MONTAGNE: Well, there's Trump on trade with China. For some perspective on what we can expect of U.S. dealings with the second largest economy in the world under a Trump presidency, we go to Shanghai where NPR'S Rob Schmitz joins us.

Good morning.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: How are the Chinese seeing Trump's victory?

SCHMITZ: Well, despite President-elect Trump's strong words in the intro there, you know, the state media has been almost gleeful in using his victory in its ongoing criticism of American democracy. News agency Xinhua called this year's U.S. election a race to the bottom and proof that the U.S. political system is faltering.

MONTAGNE: Well, China's propaganda bureau sounds like it's happy. But beyond that, what might a Trump presidency mean for the larger U.S. relationship with China?

SCHMITZ: Well, this is where China's government may begin to worry a little because we simply don't know. Trump has no record of public service to analyze. What we do know is what he said on the campaign trail. Trump has promised to, on his first day of office, set the tone by naming China a currency manipulator.

He's also pledged to impose a 45 percent tariff on all Chinese imports. It's hard to tell if he'd actually go through with that. But what's clear from his rhetoric is that the U.S. economy under his presidency will be more protectionist, and that'll increase the likelihood of a trade war with China.

Now, the American economy would likely suffer from this, but China stands to suffer even more. China's undergoing an historic economic transition. Its growth has slowed, and it still relies heavily on exports. So any sort of trade spat with one of its largest trading partners would have widespread consequences.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's move from the economic to the political. What will a Trump presidency mean for stability in the Asia Pacific region? I mean, he's hinted at withdrawing U.S. troops from Japan and South Korea.

SCHMITZ: Right. And there are a couple of different scenarios that could happen there. If Trump decides to reduce America's military presence in the region, that could leave a vacuum that China could potentially fill. China's spending more than ever on its military, and this might give it an opportunity to test its might. It could also mean that smaller countries in the region may look to China for protection or as a possible ally, like President Duterte in the Philippines has already done.

But if you take a look at what Trump's advisers are saying, they're supporting a larger U.S. military presence in Asia. They're saying Trump would strengthen the U.S. naval presence in the region and that he would add more than 70 ships to the U.S. naval fleet to protect trade routes that pass through the South China Sea.

So under that scenario, the possibility of a military standoff with China increases. But again, because we don't have much of a record of what he would do, it's really hard to know, once he's in office, what Trump will actually do.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Rob Schmitz joining us from Shanghai.

Thanks very much.

SCHMITZ: Thanks, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.