Washington Post news analysis: China may find Trump just as unpredictable as U.S. has

BEIJING, (Nov. 13) — China’s nationalist press could barely contain its glee this week. Under President Donald Trump, argued the tabloid Global Times, the United States will embrace isolationism, stop projecting its strategic might and shrink its global influence. 

Meanwhile, the United States’ Asian allies, the paper gloated, fear being cast aside. A cartoon showed the Chinese leaders’ archrival, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, sweating profusely as a slot machine came up with a Trump jackpot.

But the glee could be short-lived, and the Chinese government’s impressions of Trump — as a pragmatist who will make business deals with China but play down geopolitics; as an isolationist who will pull back from the Asia-Pacific region; as a realist who won’t bug them about human rights — could end up being seriously misguided. 

“They are expecting that they are going to be able to work with this guy,” said Paul Haenle, director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center in Beijing. “But the big risk here is that the Chinese have come to one conclusion, and the reality may be very different.”

It is far too soon to know what is in Trump’s mind, or whom he will appoint to his foreign policy and national security team. But early signs are that he may take a significantly more hawkish line toward China than Beijing expects.

Case in point: an article by two prominent Trump advisers, Alexander Gray and Peter Navarro in Foreign Policy that set out the president-elect’s “Peace Through Strength Vision for the Asia-Pacific,” borrowing Ronald Reagan’s Cold War mantra.

As expected, the essay advocates withdrawing from the Trans-­Pacific Partnership, an ambitious 12-nation trade deal championed by President Obama as a key element of his rebalance, or pivot, to Asia. China was not part of TPP negotiations, and the demise of the TPP would be a clear strategic win for Beijing, experts say.

But the rest of the essay makes for very uncomfortable reading for China, promising that Trump will massively rebuild the U.S. Navy to reassure allies that the United States remains committed to “its traditional role as guarantor of the liberal order in Asia.”

Although Japan and South Korea will be respectfully asked to do more to support the U.S. military presence, “there is no question of Trump’s commitment to America’s Asian alliances as bedrocks of stability in the region,” Gray and Navarro wrote.

Trump would back Taiwan with a comprehensive arms deal, they argued, and end the “mistreatment” of other Asian friends and allies, drawing Thailand’s military government back into the U.S. embrace and away from China, for example.

Trump has already spoken by telephone with Japan’s Abe, telling him he looked forward to strengthening the “special relationship” between the two countries, according to Japan’s Foreign Ministry. 

He also chatted with South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who told him of the importance of their alliance and the need to maintain strong sanctions and pressure on North Korea.

Trump said he agreed with her “100 percent,” according to a statement from her office in Seoul. “We are with you all the way, and we will not waver,” he was quoted as saying.

The contrast with the consensus in Beijing is marked. 

Jin Canrong, an expert on U.S.-China relations at Renmin University of China in Beijing, said he did not expect Trump to cut off funding for U.S. military bases in Japan or South Korea. But he said he thinks that the new U.S. leader would be less interested in a pivot to Asia.

“The American pressure on China’s strategic plans will be smaller,” he said, adding that China would not have to modernize its military so anxiously.

Su Hao, director of the Center for Asia-Pacific Studies at China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing, said Trump was likely to go ahead with the deployment of the THAAD missile-defense system in South Korea but otherwise take a less-confrontational stance toward China. “He is not very likely to have a high-profile military confrontation with China on the South China Sea issue,” he said.

At Gavekal Dragonomics, China policy analyst Yanmei Xie said Beijing’s optimism about a Trump presidency was based on a number of factors.

“First, they think Trump is a businessman who will be transactional, and China knows how to do transactions,” she said. “They also know how to massage the ego of a dictatorial strongman.”

According to this optimistic analysis, Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping might get along, just as Trump appears to have found a “kindred spirit” in Russian President Vladimir Putin, she said. Meanwhile, there is a belief that the next U.S. president “doesn’t really mean” all the criticism he leveled at China during the campaign. 

“None of that is a very solid basis for having an optimistic view,” Xie argued. Indeed, Trump’s foreign-policy advisers do not look like fans of China’s or people who see the country as a partner and a friend, she added.

At the other extreme, several experts warned, if Navarro and Gray are wrong and Trump takes a more isolationist approach, that might not be such unalloyed good news for China’s Communist Party, either. 

“Many clear-minded scholars think that an American retraction, the trend towards isolationism, may not be a good thing for China,” Zhao Hai, a research fellow at Tsinghua University’s National Security Institute, argued on a Carnegie-Tsinghua podcast.

“They know the United States has been a big pillar of the current international system, and China has benefited from the current international system,” he said.

A sudden and dramatic U.S. withdrawal, Zhao and Xie argued, could leave a power vacuum, breeding instability in Asian affairs — not something that China’s stability-obsessed Communist Party leaders would welcome, especially as they grapple with a slowing economy and a transition in senior leadership next year.

The idea, for example, of Japan’s building its own defense capabilities, or even of Tokyo’s and Seoul’s seeking nuclear weapons, would be anathema to Beijing.

Finally, there is one other implication of a Trump presidency that might be welcomed in the corridors of power but not necessarily on the streets. 

“Mr. Trump is a successful businessman, and he’s likely to favor profits and short-term tangible interests over principles,” said human rights activist Hu Jia. “I fear that he would put price tags on values that are priceless. And if that’s the case, human rights issues are most likely to be affected.” 

Luna Lin, Congcong Zhang and Jin Xin contributed to this report. 

Last modified: Sunday, 13 November 2016, 5:40 PM