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With or without China

Hans Spross sri
January 19, 2017

As Donald Trump prepares to take over the reins of the White House, observers worldwide remain unsure and concerned how the US policy toward China would shift under a Trump presidency. DW examines.

Shanghai Donald Trump und China
Image: Getty Images/AFP/J. Eisele

Will the US and China be on a collision course under the presidency of Donald Trump? This is one of the questions that are on the minds of foreign policy experts worldwide as Trump gets ready to move into the White House.

During his campaign for president and even after winning the elections, Trump made a series of head-turning statements and gestures in relation to China that have irked the leadership in Beijing and unnerved many Chinese. They included leveling accusations that China was trying to "rape our country" with unfair trade policies, threatening to impose punitive tariffs on Chinese imports into the US and declare Beijing a currency manipulator.

But the move that raised most hackles in China was Trump's protocol-smashing phone call with Taiwan's leader Tsai Ing-wen. Beijing was further angered by the incoming US president's suggestion that the "one-China" policy could be negotiable.

China's state-run media outlets have issues several warnings of possible retaliation if the Trump administration follows through on its threats of tariffs and undermines Beijing's claims on self-ruled Taiwan.

The potential for conflict between Washington and Beijing has also been highlighted by statements made by Trump's nominee for US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. At a senate hearing at the start of January, Tillerson said China should be denied access to the artificial islands it has built in the contested South China Sea, a crucial waterway through which an estimated $5 trillion worth of maritime trade passes every year.

Beijing has so far been relatively restrained in its response to Trump's array of controversial tweets and remarks. The Chinese leadership under President Xi Jinping appears to have adopted a wait-and-see approach until Trump's inauguration as president on January 20, and it is expected to retaliate with countermeasures should Trump's statements become official US government policy.

Kombobild Trump und Tsai Ing-wen
Trump suggested that the 'one-China' policy could be negotiableImage: Getty Images/T. Wright/A. Pon

The Taiwan issue

The "red line" for Beijing is the so-called "one-China" policy, according to which there is only one China in the world and the government in Beijing is its true representative. Any country that wants to establish diplomatic relations with the People's Republic must recognize the one-China policy, relinquish official ties with Taiwan and limit weapons exports to the territory. The US has complied with these demands for the past 37 years.

But if the Trump administration changes this course and starts delivering modern armaments like the F-35B aircraft to Taiwan, then it should bear in mind that China has "the financial resources, strategic will and tactical abilities to launch countermeasures," Shen Yi, a political analyst at Fudan University in Shanghai, told DW. "Therefore, before embarking on such an adventure and provocations, the US government should first weigh in the costs and benefits of such a move," he added.

Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, says as soon as Trump enters the White House, his statements are official government policies. "If he announces a departure from the one-China policy, which I don't think he will, China will break its ties with the US and there would no longer be any basis for diplomatic relations between the two sides," he underlined.

Against this backdrop, the Chinese leadership is pondering over what kind of a working relationship it could establish with the Trump administration. Beijing certainly would like to be seen by Washington as an important partner in tackling bilateral and international issues. Under Barack Obama's presidency, both the US and China institutionalized a "strategic and economic dialogue," which turned into a significant forum for intensifying mutual cooperation.

Cooperation between Xi and Obama was particularly evident when it came to dealing with climate change. Appearing recently at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Xi expressed his wish to continue this collaboration. Underscoring the importance of the Paris Climate Agreement, the Chinese leader indirectly urged Trump to strengthen efforts to counter the problem of man-made global warming.

Trump had, in a tweet in 2012, described climate change as a Chinese invention, to weaken US industry. Later, however, he said it was a "joke."

Barack Obama und Xi Jinping in Peking 12.11.2014
Under Obama's presidency, both the US and China institutionalized a 'strategic and economic dialogue'Image: Reuters/G. Baker

'Creating symmetry'

China aims to be at the forefront of global climate protection initiatives, and bolster its role as a seller of environmental technology products. At the same time, it wants to position itself as a defender of free trade and fight against growing isolationist and protectionist tendencies across Europe and North America. The presence of Xi Jinping in Davos sent a signal to that end.

Trump, meanwhile, had sent former US hedge fund manager Anthony Scaramucci to Davos. Scaramucci will serve in the Trump administration as a White House adviser and public liaison to government agencies and businesses. Scaramucci also presented himself as an advocate of free trade and noted that Trump wanted an "excellent relationship with the Chinese."

"The United States and the new administration does not want to have a trade war," Scaramucci said, while calling on Beijing "to reach out" to the US and "create symmetry."

The underlying message of this statement is that the US no longer wants to be disadvantaged by the global free trade arrangements that have been put in place since the end of World War II. That means the Trump administration would be in favor of globalization only as long as it benefits the American worker and middle classes.

In China, Trump's pronouncements are taken seriously, even if it's difficult to predict what he's going to do, said Shi Yinhong. Trump's most important priority lies in reinvigorating America's domestic economy and to achieve that end, he might even be willing to risk a global economic upheaval that will surely affect the Chinese economy, the Renmin University professor stated.

USA Befragung Senat - Rex Tillerson, designierter Außenminister
Tillerson has said China should be denied access to the artificial islands it has built in the contested South China SeaImage: Reuters/K. Lamarque

"Unilateral US policies could have a huge impact on China, whose biggest weaknesses are the economy and pressure on its currency," the expert told DW, adding: "This could be the start of an extremely tense relationship between the two sides."

Benefits from Trump's 'America first'?

Trump's "America First" policy, however, does not have to be to the detriment of China, writes Patrick Mendis, a China expert from Harvard University, in Hong Kong-based daily South China Morning Post.

Trump's announcement to ditch the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement and withdraw the US from the free trade deal on the day of his inauguration as president, allows China the chance to push ahead with efforts to craft its own version of a regional free trade pact. President Xi had already hinted at it during the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, or APEC, summit held in Peru last November.

Meanwhile, it's possible that under President Trump the US joins the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), so that Wall Street could benefit by making profitable investments in large projects along the "Silk Road," a network of trade routes connecting China with the West. According to Mendis, the Trump presidency can hardly "Make America Great Again" without "Making China Great Again."

Additional reporting by Dai Ying und Li Shitao

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