What the Trump Presidency Means for China

By Taisu Zhang
Monday, March 20, 2017, 7:30 AM

Prior to the 2016 U.S. Election, commentators generally thought that a Trump presidency would be a double-edged sword for the Chinese leadership: on one hand, his brand of crass populism might do severe damage to American soft power, harming traditional American alliances both across the globe and specifically in the Asia-Pacific, and thereby strengthening China’s geopolitical position.  On the other, he might challenge China over trade and international investment, potentially creating serious problems for an already unsteady Chinese economy.  Moreover, his unpredictable and volatile personality might lead to unwanted escalation in the South China Sea, or, even worse, over Taiwan.  Official Chinese media outlets were careful not to take sides prior to the election, but in private, officials seemed wary of the instability that Trump could bring.  Incendiary rhetoric issued by Trump and his senior advisors during the post-election transition heightened tensions and frayed nerves, leading to an enormous amount of hand-wringing in Chinese policy circles.

Since his inauguration, however, Trump has been just about everything Beijing could have hoped for: he has delivered in spades on the soft power side of the equation, picking seemingly needless fights with traditional allies and pushing several of them into seeking closer ties with China, but has withdrawn—with the significant exception of continuing the deployment of THAAD systems in South Korea—in fairly dramatic fashion from confrontation over Taiwan, the South China Sea, and currency manipulation.  The latter is not quite as unusual as it may seem—American presidents, going back to Reagan, have a long history of talking tough on China prior to inauguration and then backing down once sworn-in—but the former is an unprecedented development.  The enthusiastic response to Xi Jinping’s defense of globalization at Davos suggests that Beijing’s soft power has risen to a point last seen in the 18th Century.  For the first time in at least two centuries, China is in a strong position to claim a major share of the global leadership mantle.

What does this mean for domestic Chinese politics?  The pessimist might predict that it will only embolden Xi Jinping to centralize power even more dramatically, and will therefore lead to a further deterioration in civil rights.  That may or may not be true, but there are good reasons to feel more optimistic about a number of other issues, ranging from economic reform to public sentiment.

First, Trump’s rejection of economic globalization allows China to reap greater benefits via both international trade agreements and corresponding domestic reforms.  This is both because the soft power and geopolitical benefits of pro-globalization policies are significantly higher when the previous flag-bearer has suddenly renounced its leadership position, but also because, more concretely, many countries will probably be willing to offer China better terms—lower tariffs, fewer obstacles to Chinese investment, and so on—as a hedge against predictably weaker economic ties with the United States.  This will likely strengthen the political position and resolve of economic reformers within the Chinese leadership: deepening engagement with the global economy tends to boost the political and economic attractiveness of financial liberalization and pro-market reforms, insofar as it incentivizes the government to pursue legislation and policies that enhance the international competitiveness of Chinese firms and financial institutions.  

There are, as usual, strong domestic headwinds against such reform, most importantly in the form of institutional collusion between China’s political and economic elite, but its upside has clearly increased over the past several months.  A small chorus of recent commentaries in mainstream Chinese media outlets have already begun advocating aggressive embracement of economic globalization, including entrance into the TPP, both as a pathway to international leadership and as an additional incentive to accelerate domestic reforms.  They echo a series of public statements by Party leaders—including, most notably, Xi Jinping’s Davos speech—that espouse the virtues of globalization and openness.  Such praise may seem disingenuous given the significantly protectionist bent of preexisting Chinese trade policy, but it is perhaps more useful to interpret it as aspirational signaling than to dismiss it as mere hypocrisy.  

All this can wither away rapidly if China is forced into a destructive trade war with the United States, but so far the Trump administration has shown few signs that it truly wishes to go down that path.  The recent softening of the Treasury Department’s rhetoric on Chinese currency manipulation seems to suggest that the White House is reassessing its economic position vis-à-vis the Chinese, and is perhaps wary of escalating trade-related tensions at a moment of considerable political uncertainty on both sides.

Beyond its immediate impact on Chinese economic policy, Trump’s ascension also has potentially far-reaching implications for the trajectory of Chinese nationalism.  Mainland nationalism has had, for at least the past two decades, a strongly contrarian flavor.  That is, it often seemed to lack a clear positive agenda of its own, but instead has been driven by the desire to be “anti-Western,” and especially “anti-American.”  It therefore tends to react particularly strongly against episodes of perceived American disrespect and aggression, while remaining relatively ambivalent on many domestic sociopolitical issues—the massive backlash against Trump’s initial waffling on the “One China Policy” is perhaps the latest example of this.  But how might nationalist sentiment react to a dramatic rise in China’s international stature and soft power, or to a surprisingly non-confrontational and isolationist United States?

One possibility is that reactive nationalism will evolve into some form of aggressive chauvinism: buoyed by China’s newfound soft power, popular sentiment may take a further leftist swing—in Chinese political terminology, the “left” usually refers to nationalists and government supporters, whereas the “right” refers to the liberals.  If the previous hegemon seems to be voluntarily handing you an advantage, you might as well press it.  This might lead to an escalation of popular support for expansionist and potentially belligerent foreign policies, most directly in the Asia Pacific, but perhaps in Central Asia and Africa as well.  Such policies might generate short-term economic and geopolitical benefits, but they also carry a significant danger of serious long-term conflict with the United States—which, after all, cannot extricate itself from its global spheres of influence even if it truly wanted to.  “Pressing the advantage” is the fundamental strategic mindset that pushes great powers into Thucydidean traps.

Another possibility is that Trump’s discarding of the moral high ground might finally allow Chinese political discourse to detach ideas like “civil rights,” “rule of law,” “democracy,” and so on from the Western and American “other.”  This might actually allow individuals with nationalist sympathies to approach those ideas without the intellectual baggage of “intellectual imperialism,” and perhaps to adopt some of them as their own.  Nationalism does not necessarily have to be autocratic, and the primary reason why the two ideologies are so closely tied together in Chinese politics is because both are seen as counter-movements to what leftist scholars often call “Western cultural chauvinism.”  But if a Trump presidency takes “liberalism” out of the perceived “West,” then it is not inconceivable that there can be some room for intellectual reconciliation between Chinese nationalism and liberalism.  Any substantial movement in that direction would arguably have deeper consequences for Chinese politics than whatever geopolitical instability Trump is likely to generate.