President Trump: The View From China

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President Trump: The View From China

Trump’s overall policies are a mixed bag for China, but his stance on U.S. leadership opens doors for Beijing.

President Trump: The View From China
Credit: Donald Trump image via Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com

Last night, Republican front-runner Donald J. Trump secured a decisive win in the Indiana primary. That’s after he swept five states last Tuesday, winning more than 50 percent of primary voters in each state. Despite a targeted anti-Trump campaign and even an alliance between his two rivals, Trump has won 1,047 delegates and needs less than 200 more to secure the nomination. Now that Ted Cruz has announced he will suspend his campaign, the real estate mogul looks set to lock up the GOP nomination without a contested convention.

More than that, Trump is about to set a record as the most popular Republican primary candidate, attracting more votes than any presidential candidate in America’s modern history. So far, Trump has won 10.4 million votes. With nine Republican state primaries remaining, he is on pace to break George W. Bush’s record of 10.8 million votes.

Trump’s unstoppable popularity has changed sentiments within the GOP establishment, which has been forced to accept the controversial mogul as the party’s presidential nominee. For the rest of the world, this might be the most theatrical reality show that America has ever produced: an unthinkable presidential candidate is becoming reality.

International scholars, journalists, and policymakers have started to take this “political outsider” more seriously as a candidate bidding for the most important job in the world. China is no exception; Chinese media even published a series of reports analyzing the rise and popularity of Trump.

Chinese officials, diplomats, and analysts are used to “China-bashing” statements during the U.S. elections. And they generally believe that once the U.S. president is elected their China policies usually stay the same as those of their predecessors. However, with a Trump presidency, this traditional thinking might need to be changed. Based on his campaign rhetoric, Trump could bring about a major break with previous China policy across three major issues — trade, security and global leadership.

Trump proposes a tough trade policy toward China. Trump believes that a heavy tariff on Chinese products can ‘beat’ China and make America great again. Meanwhile, he doubts the real benefit of the U.S. military presence in Asia. Many American analysts have warned that China will benefit enormously from America’s alienation of their Asian allies and reduced deployment of military forces. However, both the negative impact on trade and positive impact on security are overestimated.

As for global leadership, Trump’s isolationist foreign policy may pull the United States out of its current commitments in international governance, such as the United Nations. By contrast, China is increasingly transforming itself into a “game maker” in shaping regional and international institutions as a global leader.


Compared to Trump’s vague policy positions on other issues, he has laid out his policy positions related to trade with China from an early stage. On his campaign website, Trump has a whole page devoted to “U.S.-China trade reform,” which is listed as one of only seven policy positions. The ultimate goal of Trump’s trade policy against China is to bring millions of manufacturing jobs back to the United States. He also famously suggested levying a 45 percent tariff on Chinese products, in order to ensure a level playing for American workers. This seems to be bad news for China.

In 2015, China surpassed Canada to become the United States’ largest trading partner. And for the past three decades, China’s growth model has heavily relied on exporting low-cost manufacturing products. Could Trump’s protectionist policies severely damage Chinese manufacturing industry and in a broader sense, the Chinese economy?

In fact, China is already moving away from the growth model Trump describes. China’s low-cost and low-value-added manufacturers are suffering from rising labor costs, overcapacity, and environmental concerns. Rather than relying purely on the export of labor-intensive cheap products, China has moved to export integrated manufacturing supply chains, which span the full range of products, technology, capital, and management, to services and standards. In the past three years, China has initiated a series of industrial policies to upgrade its industrial capacity and change its growth model to be innovative and consumption-based. Last year Beijing announced the “Made in China 2025” strategy to improve its high-end manufacturing sectors, including high speed trains, nuclear power, biotechnology, and aviation.

As he pledges to be the best president for job creation, Trump is more likely to put protectionist tariffs on labor-intensive manufacturing products. Given the ongoing industrial upgrading inside China, Trump might overestimate the negative impact reducing exports will have on the Chinese economy. Declining demand for exports will also exert more pressure for Chinese manufacturers to innovate and move up the global value chains, just what Beijing wants.

Trump’s other trade policies also have the potential to benefit China. First, Trump promised to withdraw from Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free trade agreement with 11 countries, including key U.S. partners such as Japan, Australia, Vietnam, and Mexico. TPP is regarded as an exclusive deal to prevent China from benefiting from new tariff reductions and preferential market access with TPP members. Should the United States pull out, and the deal fall through, China would avoid the negative economic impact out being shut out of the massive trade deal.

Second, Trump has criticized American companies for relocating their factories and business operations overseas. Trump attributes the decline of the American middle class families to decades of deindustrialization and weakening industrial competitiveness. Under a Trump presidency, American multinational companies (MNCs) might be pressured to leave emerging markets such as China. This will create market vacuum, which Chinese companies will fill in quickly. In fact, the replacement of foreign high-tech companies and shift to domestic suppliers is already underway in China. Trump’s policies could accelerate this process.


On the security side, based on comments in his recent interview with the New York Times, Trump does not put much stock in the U.S. “pivot to Asia,” the signature foreign policy of former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, who is likely to face off with Trump in the general election this November.

Surprisingly, Trump seems to dislike Japan, one of the firmest U.S. allies, more than China. In the same interview, he said, “I have really strong feelings on China. I like China very much, I like Chinese people. I respect the Chinese leaders.” Japan received no such accolades; instead Trump told his interviewers, “[Y]ou have to see the trade imbalance between Japan and the United States, it’s unbelievable. They sell to us and we practically give them back nothing by comparison. It’s a very unfair situation.” Trump repeatedly talks about how America has been beaten by other countries, and Japan often comes after China as the major competitor. Trump’s comments on trade issues have already alarmed the Japanese government.

Trump has also made it very clear that he refuses to provide security protection for Japan and South Korea for free. He suggested he would rather withdraw U.S. troops from Asia, explaining that “we just can’t do it anymore.”

When Trump was questioned about his position on South China Sea, he seemed to have little interest in increasing the U.S. military presence to balance China’s territorial claims. Instead, he redirected the issue to the re-industrialization of America and trade competition with China. Reducing U.S. military forces in China’s neighboring countries will offer more geopolitical space for China to pursue its territorial claims in both the South and East China Seas.

Trump has raised similar doubts about U.S. involvement in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). He claimed the NATO has cost America a fortune and accused of NATO allies not paying enough for U.S. military protection. As Brookings scholar Thomas Wright wrote, should Trump be elected, “Russia and China will have an unprecedented opportunity to achieve in a single presidential term what they thought would take decades, namely the destruction of the U.S.-led alliance system.”

However, whether China could benefit from the power vacuum left by the United States is still uncertain. A U.S. withdrawal from Asia could also raise potential risks for Beijing. First, the responsibility to restrain North Korea’s nuclear ambitions — already a chronic headache for China — will fall solely upon Beijing. Second, Trump would consent to Japan having its own nuclear weapons to counter the threat of North Korea. The potential nuclearization and militarization of Japan will inevitably cast a shadow on China’s national security and regional stability. Third, America’s withdrawal from NATO may further destabilize Europe and accelerate the growing momentum of right-wing parties. In the past decade, Chinese companies have invested heavily in Europe and targeted it as a potential market for China’s high-end manufacturing products. A more nationalist and protectionist Europe would threaten China’s business interests abroad. Fourth, in the South China Sea, a reduced U.S. presence won’t necessarily drive China’s neighboring countries towards Beijing. China would need to dedicate substantial bilateral and multilateral diplomacy resources to stabilize the region, with further pledges of economic cooperation and investment funds.

Global Leadership

The core concept of Trump’s “isolationist” foreign policy is for the United States to stop being the “world police” and to focus on domestic infrastructure and industrial development. With a President Trump, America is likely to reduce its commitments and leadership within the United Nations system. Trump clearly doesn’t think highly of the UN; in March, he slammed the international body for its “incompetence.”

China, meanwhile, is going in the opposite direction. It is increasingly transforming itself from a “game player” to a “game maker” by shaping regional and international institutions, norms, and standards. As Chinese President Xi Jinping has repeatedly stated, China pledges to play a leading role in international governance under the framework of the United Nations. This year China became the UN’s third largest financial contributor, and there are further plans for Beijing to increase its contribution to the UN regular budget to 7.9 percent and peacekeeping budget to 10.2 percent in the next three years. During Xi’s visit to the UN headquarters in New York last September, he announced a  $2 billion South-South cooperation fund to assist developing countries in implementing their Sustainable Development Goals for the 2030 Agenda. Trump’s hostile position with the UN might create opportunities for Beijing to take over the leadership at this multilateral platform.

Looking at the global leadership competition from a broader sense, Trump’s isolationist tendencies and his unpopular image could threaten U.S. soft power and public diplomacy in the long run. For example, the U.K. Parliament seriously debated banning Trump from entering the country early this year.

Moreover, Trump’s strict immigration policies could push more young talents back home – including to China. According to China’s Ministry of Education, about three-quarters of Chinese students now choose to return home after finishing their degrees overseas. This momentum might be accelerated during a Trump’s presidency, as Trump as criticized specialized visas that allow high-skilled workers into the United States.

By contrast, Beijing is easing its immigration rules and providing competitive packages to attract global talents. If the United States is about to close its doors, China is ready to become the next destination for promising young talents from all over the world. Over time, this flow of immigrants might gradually enhance China’s global leadership and increases its soft power.

Zhibo QIU was a consultant at the United Nations Headquarter in New York. Previously, she worked for both the public and private sector as policy analyst and campaign officer in Beijing. This article represents the author’s personal opinions.