US Policy Orientation

Donald Trump and China: A Contest for Primacy

15 Nov, 2016    ·   5180

Prof Srikanth Kondapalli remarks on the president-elect's isolationist tendencies and why China might be concerned

Srikanth Kondapalli
Srikanth Kondapalli
Distinguished Fellow
The dramatic win of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the US at the hustings has caught many a nation by surprise given the critical outreach of the country in the economic, political, strategic and military spheres of the world.

Trump’s foreign policies after assuming office from January 2017 have become major debating points in terms of their impact on the rest of the world. While Trump made several disparaging remarks during the heat of the election campaign, in the last three decades, there is a definite trend in the US of a huge chasm between electoral-time barbs and criticism of other countries, and the pragmatic policies followed while in office. If this trend continues, predictable outcomes in US foreign policy towards the rest of the world may be witnessed.

Traditionally, US foreign policy has veered between isolationism till World War II, and off-shore balancing through the hundreds of naval bases and facilities globally through controlled engagement policies or a mix of the latter policies. With over US$18 trillion in gross domestic product and by heading the 'new economy' of information and communications technologies, apart from its cutting edge military forces, US policies influence every nook and corner of the Earth, although interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria have dented this US profile.
Trump has promised to make the US great again. He has also been critical of its uneven and costly relations with allies, and mounting trade deficits with China and its currency manipulation policies. If Trump expands cooperative relations with Russia as promised during the elections – thus making radical departures in US policy that has so far stressed further isolation in the backdrop of developments in Crimea – then China is likely to face US' wrath in the coming years.

More significantly, China has been challenging US' primacy in all the three new security domains – cyber, space, and maritime. This would constrain Trump’s plan to make the US great in the decades to come. While Trump may not flag the Democratic Party’s obsession with human rights violations in China, China’s contestation of US primacy in global and regional affairs is likely to be the flashpoint between the two in the coming years. Domestically, the new leadership in China since 2012 has jettisoned Deng Xiaoping’s policy of “keeping a low profile” and has instead had been following a policy to “accomplish something” -  which is protecting China’s interests abroad.

Despite his isolationist streak, Trump understands that China’s advances globally and regionally came at the cost of the US and Russia playing one against the other. Thus China became a swing state in the later part of the Cold War by aligning with the US and contributing to the disintegration of the then Soviet Union. Also, by joining the US-led globalisation process China became the largest trading country, displacing the US and its allies. By staying neutral in the Georgian and Crimean crises, China forced Russia to veer towards Beijing in the light of mounting European sanctions. Trump’s approach towards Russia thus will alter geo-strategic equations and expose Chinese vulnerabilities.

Trump is also aware that China has been attempting to force the US out of Asia since the USS Impeccable was shooed away from the South China Sea in 2009. Comments made by the Chinese President at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) summit in May 2014 on Asian countries looking after their own security rubbed the US the wrong way. Weaning the Philippines and Malaysia away from the US camp has further curtailed US manoeuvrability in the South China Sea. Beijing's free trade policies vis-à-vis Australia, New Zealand, East Asia and other regions has added momentum towards the nudging of the US from these regions.

China unsuccessfully sold the US the idea of a “new type of major power” relationship at the Sunnylands meeting between Obama and Xi Jinping in June 2013, even as it denied a similar status to Japan and India. China is nudging the US to acknowledge Beijing’s 'equal' status with the US – a point Trump will find unpalatable in the coming years.

As a businessperson, Trump also noted in the election campaign the acute asymmetry in US' trade relations with China. Of the more than half a trillion in trade with China, Beijing has a surplus of nearly US$400 billion with the US. China, with its tight control over Renminbi valuation, artificially kept it as low as over 40 per cent, despite the International Monetary Fund (IMF) accommodating it as a part of the global basket of currency in December 2015. This is hurting the US economy, as Trump noted during the election campaign.

Despite reaching out to Trump soon after the election results were known and despite the outwardly calm, China’s leadership is wary of the unchartered course of its relations with the US under the new presidency. Soon after the election results, while President-elect Trump made statements regarding the pursuit of pragmatic policies during his tenure, including being even in his policies with other countries, China is a concerned country.