Donald Trump was voted into office amidst profound domestic political and economic changes in the United States. His presidency will have an immense impact on the existing international order.
The financial crisis that began in 2008 continues to take its toll on American society, while Obama’s domestic policies during his eight years in office have had a far-reaching impact on America’s social fabric and racial relations. A previously “oval-shaped” society, with the middle-class as the stabilizing factor, has now shifted to a much more perilous “dumbbell-shaped” structure.
Meanwhile, bitter political tussling between Republicans and Democrats has led to an impasse. Against this backdrop, the American people became discontented with the political establishment. At the same time, the people who actually run America – Wall Street tycoons and the military-industrial complex – are now turning away from the political establishment and moving to the forefront. A look at Trump’s cabinet picks suggests he has appointed people directly from the military and financial sectors, two interest groups that have long been running American politics from behind the curtain.
Meanwhile, across the Pacific, in recent years we have been seeing a more assertive China in terms of its policy, national power, and self-assurance. China is now more straightforward and unequivocal when dealing with international and regional affairs, as well as issues at its periphery that concern its interests, all of which are characteristics of a major power.
While a growing economy continues to lend support to the projection of its national power, China’s military strength has also grown prodigiously. New fighter jets and warships as well as a newly re-branded rocket force are all indications of the remarkable increase in China’s military power. China is also more self-assured when faced with internal and external challenges, showing stronger resilience toward changes in external circumstances. In other words, we are witnessing a confident China ready to pursue more aggressive policies supported by its rising national power even as the United States’ position becomes ever more precarious.
When evaluating the prospects for China-U.S. relations, we should bear in mind that the existing balance of power between the two countries has either been broken already or is in the process of becoming so. Competition in the spheres of both security and economics will intensify.
On the economic front, China is not content with its role as the “world’s factory” and has been trying to create a new role for itself in institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the BRICS Development Bank. The United States is concerned that these ambitions may undermine its dominant position; this is why the Obama administration decided to opt out of the AIIB project.
When it comes to security issues, a case in point is the intensified competition in the South China Sea, where the two countries are on a collision course. The conflict cannot be adequately explained away either by China’s determination to defend its marine interests or by the U.S. insistence on freedom of navigation. The real crux of the matter is a contest for dominance in the region. With tensions escalating, the two sides are yet to find a resolution to the deadlock.
In light of the above, I make the following predictions regarding China-U.S. relations under Trump.
First of all, competition between China and the United States in the realms of security and the economy will intensify. China will not halt its pace and wait for the United States to adjust its strategy. Trump, on the other hand, will be eagerly looking for ways to “make America great again.” The resulting competition will make it more difficult for the two sides to cooperate on security and economic issues. The key challenge for both sides is being able to successfully tackle domestic issues and maintain growth.
While certain structural obstacles between China and the United States may become more challenging, other issues will retreat to the background. From what we saw during and after the election campaign, Trump will treat the United States essentially as a profit-making enterprise, and his basic policy objective will be to maximize and defend America’s economic interests. Consequently, Trump will likely adopt a bargaining strategy in foreign policy, especially when dealing with China, with the objective of forcing China to give away more interests. As a result, China and the United States will have more fiction in trade. However, Trump will not emphasize democracy and human rights, values often used by the Democratic Party to criticize China. This may incidentally dismantle the ideological obstacle between the two countries. China and the United States may actually see improvement in their relations when both sides get busy in striking business deals.
Finally, China and the United States will establish new communication mechanisms, focusing more on bilateral interaction rather than multilateral cooperation. The main justification for Trump’s anti-globalization stance is that globalization has weakened U.S. hegemony, resulting in the depletion of its manufacturing sector, for instance. Economic cooperation as a result of multilateral trade negotiations has undermined U.S. dominance, according to Trump. While trying to reclaim some of that lost manufacturing capacity, Trump will also put more focus on negotiating bilateral trade deals with China and other major partners. China and the United States may also make headway with the Bilateral Investment Treaty soon. After all, no country so far has been able to challenge the United States in its capacity to negotiate bilateral trade deals.
In conclusion, the emergence of the military and financial interests in the United States from behind the curtain to the forefront will make America’s domestic and foreign policies more direct and straightforward. Meanwhile, China will continue its path of stable growth, significantly shifting the existing power balance. With China-U.S. relations entering a new phase of adjustment, the Trump administration will have to adapt accordingly. This will be a period of uncertainty, where potential conflicts could flare up. China will also adjust to the changes in America’s politics, economy, and security policy, while trying to maintain a stable relation regardless of the transfer of power in the United States.
Teng Jianqun is the Director of the Department of U.S. Studies at China Institute of International Studies.