Amidst Trumpian disorder, China eyes up its opportunity

Mao once observed, “everything under heaven is in utter chaos. The situation is excellent!” Will China prosper in the era of president Trump?

Jamie Kenny
11 November 2016
Andy Wong/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Andy Wong/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.The United States' pivot to Asia died sometime around 11pm GMT on 10 November 2016. It died practically unnoticed, since the world was still struggling with the sheer conceptual enormity of a president Trump.

It had been ill for some time. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, a wide ranging trade deal designed to bring China's neighbours into an economic alliance with the US, met with bipartisan rejection on the campaign trail. In particular, it offended Trump's sense of economic nationalism. “We do not need to enter into another massive international agreement that ties us up and binds us down”, he said in June.

The TPP, the main plank of Obama's Asian rebalancing, finally expired when incoming House minority leader Chuck Schumer confirmed to union leaders that it would not be ratified by Congress.

The pivot did not die alone. So did a tradition of Sino-US diplomacy stretching back to Nixon's original meeting with Mao: a blend of engagement and containment designed to encourage and profit from China's emergence as a major economic power, while shaping its behaviour along channels unthreatening to US primacy. It is a tradition that bound China to the US as an indispensable but always junior partner in the whole process of globalisation.

It is a tradition that once engaged some of the best minds in China and the United States. A tradition that enabled China to emerge as the world's second-ranking power by supplying the globe with everything from curtain rails to computers, rather than engaging in wars of conquest. A tradition that has now been replaced by the conviction of a man, whose past is littered with a trail of bankrupt casinos, that he can do phenomenal deals. Sad!

It is true that China has been chafing at its junior partner role to the US; aggressively pursuing maximal territorial claims in the South China, creating parallel international institutions free of American dominance, offering lavish trade and aid packages to potential friends and partners. But this expansion took place within a generally benign and predictable international environment. China may now be free of systematic attempts at containment. But it faces a president committed to a major military buildup – possibly including the 350-ship navy that China hawks in the US consistently demand – and who casually threatens imposing tariff levels on China that amount to open economic warfare.

Yet the problem for China may not be a consistently hostile United States. It may be that a Trump administration will be unable to establish any sort of coherent policy at all. It is headed by a man who thinks and behaves like a teenage Marxist’s caricature of a plutocrat. The public service professionals, area specialist and jobbing think-tankers of old look set to be replaced by a random assortment of fanatics, chancers and eager lobbyists whose wildly contradictory demands will go unmediated through the political process. In short, the functioning hegemon may have been replaced by an agent of chaos which maintains an extensive military presence across the Asia-Pacific region. The US 'posture', to lapse into diplo-speak, now resembles the man brooding in the corner of a pub – the one you don't want to make eye contact with.

The functioning hegemon may have been replaced by an agent of chaos.

Against this, a Trump presidency provides Beijing with many opportunities – and has been providing them, in fact, since he announced his candidacy. The man himself is a standing insult to the idea that the democratic process produces better government. As the author of the nastiest US political campaign in recent history, his progress has provided easy copy to state propagandists. The man who broadly endorsed the Tiananmen Square massacre is highly unlikely to exert any meaningful pressure over human rights. And what's more, he is a familiar type to generations of reform era Chinese officials.

As James Palmer, Asia editor of Foreign Policy magazine recently wrote: “Trump is also exactly the kind of businessman who is most easily taken in by China — credulous, focused on the externalities of wealth, and massively susceptible to flattery. A single trip, with Chinese laying on the charm, could leave him as fond of China’s strongmen as he is of Russia’s Putin.”

At this point it's also worth remembering that Trump is already a China-connected businessman. Shanghai has its Trump hotel, and one of Trump's major New York developments was funded with multimillion dollar loans from the state-owned Bank of China. Perhaps Beijing would consider it too crass to use this as leverage. But perhaps, having assessed the deal-maker-in-chief, it  might think it worth a go all the same.

More generally, the sense of radical uncertainty following Trump's election may make China's obsession with stability more appealing, despite the growing level of domestic oppression conducted in its name. Many currency dealers responded to his victory by selling dollars and buying Yuan, probably the first time in which the RMB has been viewed as a haven currency for buyers fleeing political risk – a sort of beacon of Market Leninist order in an ocean of Trumpian chaos.

Arguably, China's experiences with Trump-like leaders go back to before the building of the Great Wall. He may not be clad in animal skins riding at the head of a horde of mounted archers, but tips for dealing with the Donald can be easily found in any of China's historical texts on the fine art of 'barbarian handling.'

A beacon of Market Leninist order in an ocean of Trumpian chaos.

Perhaps the best example of the new high risk-high reward international environment for China can be found in Trump's alliance policy. Trump has said repeatedly that he believes friends of the United States do not pay enough for the privilege of hosting its military and upholding American dominance. This conception still seems to hold. The day after Trump's election, one of his advisers told Japanese TV that the president-elect regarded defence alliances as “contracts to be reviewed”, leading the country's former defence minister to speculate that the time had come to prepare for the closure of US bases in Japan.

This classically Trumpian idea of an alliance as a literal protection racket is likely to lead more Asian countries to follow the lead of the Philippines in drawing closer to China. It may lead to the collapse of the alliance system which currently constrains China's regional ambitions. It may even enable China to coerce Taiwan back into the arms of the 'motherland'. But it may also lead to Japan, China's main regional rival, acquiring or developing nuclear weapons.

In South Korea, too, there is increasing talk of going nuclear, mainly in response to North Korea's ongoing nuclear missile programme. but it is also partly a reaction to Trump's pay-as-you-go attitude to US allies, coupled with his stated desire to meet Kim Jong-un. This may be one of Trump's better ideas. It certainly led the official Rodong Sinmun newspaper to hail his election as a 'wise choice'. But that's not how it looks to Seoul.

At a bad time in China's revolution, Mao Zedong is supposed to have tried to cheer up his comrades with the observation that “everything under heaven is in utter chaos. The situation is excellent!” What Trump gives Mao's successors, at very high stakes, is the chance to prove him right. 

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