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China Does Not Fear the Return of Donald Trump

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China Power | Diplomacy | East Asia

China Does Not Fear the Return of Donald Trump

For the Chinese strategic community, there’s no perception of Biden or Trump being better for China; it’s a matter of who is less detrimental.

China Does Not Fear the Return of Donald Trump

U.S. President Donald Trump (seated, right) participates in a signing ceremony of an agreement between the United States and China with Chinese Vice Premier Liu He (seated, left) in the East Room of the White House, Jan. 15, 2020.

Credit: Official White House Photo by D. Myles Cullen

The 2024 U.S. presidential election cycle has commenced, attracting global attention to the rematch between former President Donald Trump and current President Joe Biden. Trends in polling data from the end of last year point to a significant likelihood of Trump’s comeback. This possibility appears to have strategists worldwide on edge – the potential return of Trump seems poised to exacerbate the fragility of the liberal international order

One of the more fascinating questions raised in discussions of a potential second term for Trump is whether China dreads the prospect.

Many analysts believe China fears Trump’s return to power. One of their primary reasons they cite is Trump’s potential to adopt irrational and extremely tough economic policies toward China. In February, Trump threatened to impose tariffs of more than 60 percent on Chinese goods. Against the backdrop of weak Chinese exports, such protectionist policies are a major concern for the Chinese government. The latest data shows that China’s exports, measured in dollars, totaled $3.38 trillion in 2023, marking a 4.6 percent decline year-over-year

Beyond tariffs, Trump could also adopt more aggressive policies in terms of export controls and investment screenings, which would be highly detrimental to China’s exports and foreign investments. With economic growth under pressure and the pursuit of “new quality productivity,” these measures could exert even greater pressure on the Chinese government.

Relations between China and the United States have warmed over the past year, yet there is widespread concern that Trump’s ascent to the presidency could dismantle the constructive engagement mechanisms established by senior leaders of both countries in the recent year – a development that would deeply dishearten the Chinese strategic community. 

Following the Sino-American presidential summit in California in 2023, the two nations indeed entered a phase of milder and more interactive relations. Despite skepticism about how much pragmatic progress China and the United States could achieve, the two sides indeed resumed high-level official dialogues in areas such as fentanyl, artificial intelligence, and economics – dialogues that had been nearly suspended in previous years. In September 2023, the countries established economic and financial working groups, followed by a narcotics working group in February 2024, and are poised to engage in discussions on artificial intelligence soon.

The re-engagement is also trickling down to the people-to-people level. The U.S. Department of Transportation announced that, starting March 31, 2024, Chinese airlines are permitted to operate 50 round-trip passenger flights between China and the U.S. per week. 

There are reports that U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is set to visit China for a second time soon, suggesting that high-level communications between China and the U.S. will continue in 2024. However, should Trump return to office, officials on both sides will need to re-establish contacts and mutual trust anew.

Some analysts believe the Chinese government has reason to fear that a Republican administration might completely overturn the efforts of these early high-level Sino-American dialogues. After all, Trump might prefer to appoint confidants rather than professionals to manage Sino-American relations. 

Moreover, his first term in office demonstrated that Trump’s foreign policy decisions are deeply imbued with his personal style, raising concerns within the Chinese government about him crossing red lines on certain critical issues between China and the United States. 

Generally, it is believed that Trump personally does not prioritize the Taiwan issue, leaving room for adjustments in China’s cross-strait policies. However, some analysts argue that Trump’s unpredictability means his policies on Taiwan could exceed Beijing’s expectations, including a potential expansion of military cooperation, especially given Lai Ching-te’s election victory in Taiwan. 

As Rorry Daniels from the Asia Society Policy Institute remarked, “Beijing’s real nightmare scenario is not necessarily watching Lai Ching-te winning the presidency of Taiwan, but it’s the combination of Lai Ching-te and perhaps Donald Trump coming back into the White House.”

These are all valid concerns for China. But in reality, there are stronger grounds to believe that China does not fear Trump’s return. 

China is prepared for any hardline policies Trump might introduce. After Trump’s previous term, the Chinese strategic community recognized that he is not merely a transactional businessman and that there is a need to be prepared for his extreme policies toward China. The experiences of his four years in office were invaluable to the Chinese government. 

Indeed, any adjustments to U.S. policies toward China in Trump’s potential second term would have less impact this time around. Especially in the economic domain, in anticipation of possible high tariffs, local governments across China have been increasing investments in manufacturing while actively diversifying export channels.

Crucially, China harbors no illusions about the United States genuinely softening its policies toward China. Even after a year of positive interactions with the Biden administration, the Chinese government was not surprised by Biden’s announcement to block Chinese electric vehicles from entering the U.S. market and to further expand export controls on semiconductors and cloud computing, among other policies. 

For the Chinese strategic community, there’s no perception of Biden or Trump being better for China; it’s a matter of who is less detrimental. Many Chinese scholars believe that “no matter who takes office, the overall direction of the U.S. strategic competition with China will not change.”

Furthermore, China may even be able to reap some benefits from Trump’s iconoclastic approach to diplomacy. Trump’s foreign policy, particularly his “America First” doctrine, led to a distancing between the United States and some of its traditional allies in the Asia-Pacific and Europe. This estrangement was not only evident in diplomatic rhetoric but also in the implementation of specific policies, such as the U.S. withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), questioning the value of NATO, and imposing tariffs on trade partners. 

In the absence of a communicative United States, China might forge closer relations with Europe and other countries in the Asia-Pacific region, aiding its strategy to expand opening up to the outside world. There are reports that German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is scheduled for his second visit to China in April 2024, and Chinese President Xi Jinping might also visit countries like France and Serbia in the first half of this year. It is very likely that discussions on how to jointly prepare for Trump’s potential return will commence this year between these nations.

The 2024 U.S. presidential election remains this year’s most significant political focal point. With over half a year left until the November election, it’s currently impossible to directly predict the victor of this contest, yet signs of Trump’s potential return are already spreading panic globally. Against that backdrop, China does not fear Trump’s comeback, nor harbors any illusions that Biden’s tenure would offer substantial benefits to China.