By: Professor Kerry Brown
In the brutal and divisive presidential election campaign in the US over 2016, if foreign policy figured in the words of the then candidate Donald Trump, it was largely in the context of seeing the outside world as a place which had benefited asymmetrically with the USA in the realm of trade, and been a taker in terms of the expense of security commitments particularly across the Asia Pacific region. Trump’s mantra of ‘Making America Great Again’, despite the often contradictory specific statements he uttered through the course of the year, in this domain boiled down to a simple proposition: the American people wanted a better deal in their relationships in the Pacific and with the wider world. The question was precisely what shape this would take.
Now Trump is President, we are about to find out the answer to this question. Whatever way policy develops, the centrality of managing China for the USA and creating a new kind of relationship is assured. China figured in Trump’s incendiary statements through 2016 as the jewel in the crown of Asian exploitation and manipulation of USA’s largesse – the place that had given the least and gained the most from America’s security guarantees and its trade deals. China through membership of a global rules-based system like the World Trade Organisation, of which it has been a member since 2001, had risen to be the world’s second largest economy, its largest importer and exporter, and its fastest growing market. Despite this, it had managed to dextrously defend its own domestic commercial interests, being a taker rather than a giver.
A very particular gripe by Trump and his supporters was the fact that through overproduction, and unfair state subsidies, China had flooded the global market in commodities like steel or products like solar panels, in ways which destroyed jobs in the mid-West and rustbelt of the US. Bringing back these jobs was a core promise that Trump made – though his limited initial contact with China’s Xi Jinping during the period up to 20th January when he was President-elect showed the Chinese were very aware that achieving this would be next to impossible. Things are evidently more complicated. We are about to find out just how well Trump’s Manichean view of the world will actually help deal with the globe’s most complex and important relationship – that between America and the People’s Republic.
It’s the Stupid Economy
Despite its lack of elegance and tact so far, Trump has made a core point which needed setting out. The bottom line is that China since 1978 has been a massive beneficiary of globalisation. It has lifted 400 million people out of poverty, marketized, and risen to become one of the world’s economic powerhouses. It has done this on the back of manufacturing, and export industries. Put simply, with a huge labour market, and very low wages, it has been able to outcompete almost everyone else, at least till recently. Jobs have flooded from developed markets, into China. For the unskilled and those working in factories in the developed world, this has been a brutal era. They were amongst the constituency who let out a howl of pain in voting for Trump because they are attracted by his promise of a new deal and new kind of relationship with China.
China has evidently engaged with the American-led and inspired global system pragmatically. But it does not buy into the underpinning values of this system. It does not believe in any concomitant political liberalisation, nor the values of freedom and free exchange in the marketplace of values and ideas. It has used the global system and the wealth creation it has provided to bolster its own nationalistic project, aimed at restoring China to its place as the centre of the Asian region, making it a globally respected power. This international system in China’s eyes has been a means to an end – focussed on China and China’s assessment under the Communist Party of its own needs. In this context, trading and working with China means supporting this narrative – and it means that economic engagement by US companies indirectly subsidises this nationalistic mission. The bottom line is that, so far at least, China has won the campaign for globalisation. That was certainly not the intention of the original supporters of engagement with China, amongst the most fervent of whom were the Americans, who believed that through the process of economic co-operation the People’s Republic would slowly develop into a more liberal, democratic system. As of 2017, that simply has not happened.
Trump as President will probably accept that lofty ambitions for China’s internal reform are not likely to happen. But he will focus on the ways in which China needs to offer a better deal in terms of access to its growing domestic market, more commitment and responsibility on issues that matter to it like global climate change, and more responsible behaviour in the context in which it gets much more than most other partners from a stable, secure international environment. Trump’s USA no longer wants to subsidise China’s security indirectly. And it wants to see real bottom line returns for its own economy from China’s new found prosperity.
A more isolationist America under Trump will offer a mixture of risk and opportunity for China. On the one hand, it will mean that the US is less likely to want to contain and close space down around China, in the East and the South China Sea area. It will regard these as expensive, remote issues that are not, as Clinton said when Secretary of State, part of its core interests. A transactional American President might even deal with involvement and dominance by China in these areas as issues that can be ‘sold’ through better economic returns for the USA.
Taiwan has already figured as an issue. With his usual instinct to go directly for someone’s vulnerabilities, Trump has honed in on the status of Taiwan, taking a call from the President of the Republic of China on the island Tsai Ing-wen in December, the first time this had happened since 1979, and then tweeting that he did not recognise the One China policy.
Taiwan’s status is one of the great anomalies left over from the Cold War. For most, it is a puzzling, almost nonsensical policy under which people are being asked to regard a place which has its own flag, military, currency, fiscal policy, stamps, and national anthem, and which has been utterly separate from the Mainland since 1949, over which time it has developed its own democratic, multi-party system, as something they cannot confer the word ‘country’ on. Uniquely, Taiwan has all the attributes of a state. It even has over 20 countries that still recognise it as a state, including the Vatican. And yet, for Beijing, the use of the label ‘country’ towards it is disallowed. America and others concur, conferring diplomatic recognition on Beijing alone and adopting variants of the One China posture.
This policy in itself is incoherent. Even so, the aim over the last few decades has simply been to maintain the status quo. Trump and his advisors know that this is the one issue that Beijing cares more about than them. The question is whether some kind of deal can be done whereby the US relaxes its commitment to the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 which commits it to a security role with the island and gets things it cares about more in return – trade openness and better returns from Beijing.
If Trump does pursue this path, it is a high risk one. That Beijing cares so much about Taiwan’s status means this matter transcends the idea of doing deals. And even if it can start to edge towards some reunification framework – surely guaranteeing Xi Jinping a position in the history books – there is the massive issue of the 23 million people on Taiwan and the fact that surveys in recent years show over 90 percent regard themselves as Taiwanese, not Chinese, and that they want at best to maintain the status quo, and, in many cases, to go for some form of independence which is recognised. Quite how Beijing handles this massive issue without unacceptable heavy-handed means remains a mystery.
China and the Trump Dividend
For China, the Trump presidency might offer them to have an amazing opportunity to accelerate their path toward becoming the great power of the 21st century. Many people interpret Trump’s rise as a sign of declining US power and prestige, and symptomatic of a dysfunctional political system that needs reform but does not know how to achieve this. Even so, there are massive issues for China even if this positive scenario develops. Uppermost amongst those will be the fact that while China might want to replace the USA regionally, it does not want global responsibilities, and nor does it feel ready with its immense internal challenges to take up this role.
More striking even than this is the ways in which any US withdrawal will push China into the very position it most fears – that of being forced to articulate a system of values and of international co-operation which is not predicated solely on bringing China gain but is something that others in the rest of the world can sign up to. This will be a position and a task that China will never, in modern times, have tried to undertake. It is right to feel wary. But it might not have any choice but to embark on this as the USA simply retreats into its own space.
Kerry Brown is Professor of Chinese Studies and Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College, London. From 2012 to 2015, he was Professor of Chinese Politics and Director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, Australia. Prior to this, he worked at Chatham House from 2006 to 2012, as Senior Fellow and then Head of the Asia Programme. From 1998 to 2005 he worked at the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as First Secretary at the British Embassy in Beijing, and then as Head of the Indonesia, Philippine and East Timor Section. He lived in the Inner Mongolia region of China from 1994 to 1996. He has a Master of Arts from Cambridge University, a Post Graduate Diploma in Mandarin Chinese (Distinction) from Thames Valley University, London, and a PhD in Chinese politics and language from Leeds University.