United States President Donald Trump and the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, are in a bind. Trump’s slogan is to “Make America Great Again”, while Xi’s motto is “Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation”. The phrases have the same meaning: Each leader suggests his country has declined and claims that he will restore it to the top position in the world. But the triumph of one country is built on the failure of the other. It’s a zero-sum game.
Trump’s move on Monday to abandon the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — a trade proposal of the administration of former US president Barack Obama meant to strengthen America’s economic power at China’s expense — leaves little doubt that Trump will follow through with his campaign promises to upend American trade policies, including those towards China. Taken with Trump’s post-election telephone chat with the leader of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, a major break with diplomatic protocol, we can expect a jolt to US-China relations.
But while a trade war, military skirmishes in the South China Sea or Taiwan Strait, or other diplomatic crises could cause a hiccup in China’s rise, the Trump era will offer plenty of opportunities for Beijing. China has a chance to become a full-fledged superpower if it responds to the Trump presidency by opening up more to the world economically and politically.
China has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of globalisation, which helped bring hundreds of millions of Chinese people out of poverty in the past three decades. And as much as Trump would like to freeze the forces of free trade, the world will keep globalising.
Trump’s scrapping of the Trans-Pacific Partnership is a chance for Beijing to strengthen its position as the economic leader of East Asia by bolstering regional trade. China is party to a free-trade agreement with Southeast Asian nations and Beijing should encourage South Korea and Australia to join that pact. Japan is reluctant to become part of a trade group that includes China, so Beijing should leave Tokyo behind.
The Chinese leadership should also end its long-held policy of avoiding formal alliances. As the Trump administration signals it may ignore Beijing’s “One China” policy and treat Taiwan as an independent country, potentially upending the bedrock of American-Chinese relations since 1979, Beijing should establish military alliances with as many neighbours as possible. China has so-called strategic partnerships with most of its neighbours, but only Pakistan is a traditional military ally.
If China were to form meaningful bilateral military pacts with Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia and especially the Philippines, America would have more difficulty joining a potential war in the Taiwan Strait — a very real possibility given Trump’s threats to the status quo. An East Asian trade agreement and a raft of new formal alliances will help Beijing take the position as the leader of East Asia and make the region safer.
Trump’s anti-democratic tendencies in the domestic arena, along with his threats to build a wall across America’s border with Mexico, offer another opportunity for China in immigration policy.
An illiberal turn in the US could drive talented Americans to seek careers abroad, while skilled workers the world over may start looking somewhere other than the US to make a better life. By adopting a more open policy towards immigrants — including the creation of a path to citizenship for some categories of immigrants — China could expand its economy while improving its moral standing globally. In doing so, Beijing could greatly reduce America’s soft-power advantage.
On the bilateral front, a trade war between China and the US seems likely under Trump. Still, Beijing should be considering ways to reduce its trade surplus with the US and avoid a battle.
Meanwhile, if the Chinese bought fewer American bonds, the Trump administration would find it harder to pay for its plans to rebuild domestic infrastructure.
There are signs that the Chinese leadership is already stepping in to fill the leadership void developing under Trump’s presidency. Last week, Xi spoke at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, recommitting China to globalisation and free trade. China is also poised to take a leading role in environmental policy, given Trump’s hostility towards climate agreements.
Relations between China and the US will inevitably deteriorate with Trump at the helm. The nuclear deterrent should still prevent an all-out war, but confrontation will be the core of these two giants’ relationship for the foreseeable future.
— New York Times News Service
Yan Xuetong is the dean of the Institute of International Relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing.