Foreign Policy Blogs

A Preview of Trump’s Foreign Policy Towards China


(Brigette Supernova/The Daily Beast)

After winning the election, Trump will soon have to navigate the labyrinthian US foreign affairs field as the President. As a diplomacy amateur, Trump’s strategy may cause uncertainty to US-Sino relations. Tracing back to Trump’s election campaign, he has never introduced a complete and systematic foreign policy strategy. Most of his commitments are based on the form of a slogan.

It is difficult to categorize his strategy as merely an election slogan or a truly tangible diplomatic policy. However, with reference to Trump’s media interview, his election platform and a speech provided by James Woolsey, the diplomacy advisor of Trump’s election campaign, in China-US Forum, a basic stance of Trump’s China strategy can be formulated.

This position can neither be simply classified as pro-Democrats nor pro-Republican. Rather, as Woolsey had stated, US’s external intervention will be exercised with more prudence. The national interest of US will also be redefined.

In the field of military, Trump has explicitly disagreed with the rebalancing strategy of the Obama’s administration in the Asia Pacific region. In terms of the South China Sea territorial dispute, not only does Trump having an ambiguous stance, but also criticize US’s allies of their lack of commitment.

He also propose to re-evaluate US-Japan allies. He has agreed with idea of South Korea and Japan acquiring nuclear weapons, stating that it may be beneficial to the containment of China and resolve North Korea nuclear issue. Moreover, Trump threatened to terminate economic relation with China if China fails to control North Korea effectively. In other words, to deal with the geopolitical issues in East Asia, Trump emphasizes on allies to bear more responsibility for security and to contain China. At the same time, he hopes China to act constructively in the region.

The implementation of the above strategies depends on the interaction of Trump, his cabinets and Republican-led House of Representatives and Senate. However, it inevitably causes uncertainty to the region. On the one hand, the roll-back of US’s external commitment can relieve the pressure on China created by the rebalancing strategy. China may be able to expand its sphere of influence in the Asia Pacific region. At the same time, the roll back of US’s responsibility may induce Southeast Asian nations such as Malaysia and Philippine to bandwagon with China. On the other hand, US is predicted not to withdraw all its influence in the region as isolationism is not beneficial to US’s economic interests. Trump’s emphasis on “America First” requires significant external trade leverage.

Trump’s actual diplomatic strategy for China rests on the dimension of economic relations. In many of Trump’s speeches, Trump accused China of stealing America’s wealth and job position. Most of its “America First” strategies are targeting China, including those related to the protection of copyrights and anti-dumping measures. In the past, Trump has proposed to impose a 45% tariff on Chinese products, though it is unlikely for the parliament and Republican to acknowledge these proposals.

In Trump’s plan for his first 100 days in office, Trump stated that he would classify China as a currency manipulator and initiate negotiations with China regarding trade dispute. However, currency is not a major topic of the current US-Sino economic relations. Former president candidate Romney had also proposed a similar strategy in his platform, it is predicted that the classification of currency manipulation can be seen as merely a leverage for future negotiation.

Undoubtedly, if Trump pursues the above economic strategies, China reacted to these strategies strongly, guaranteeing an all-out currency war. However, given what we knew about Donald Trump’s personality and his love of “deal-making”, it is more likely that these will be used as leverages in future negotiations.

Another key issue related to the grand strategy of China is Trump’s reluctance on free trade agreement such as TPP and NAFTA. With no endorsement from the president, the prospect of TPP is undermined and the attempt of US to reconstruct the rules and norms of economic relations in the Asia Pacific region will be in vain. Therefore, it provides China with a decent chance to implement “Belt and Road” initiative to strengthen economic ties with countries in Central Asia, Southeast Asia and Europe.

Woolsey has recognized the role of China in G20 in the fields of US-Sino relations and global governance. He stated that US should provide meaningful responses to China-led regional development institution such as AIIB and “Belt and Road” initiative. At the same instant, Woolsey urged China to uphold more responsibility to collective issues. He believed China had not been responsible for major global crises such as the Libya crisis and the rise of ISIS. It can be understood as an implicit criticism urging China to have their commitment commensurate with the international status it is pursuing.

Trump failed to provide diplomatic strategy other than those in the field of military, bilateral trade and global governance. In the field of normative diplomacy and soft power strategy, Trump has not provided any tangible plans. Commentators speculate it as an indicator of Trump’s lack of interests to promote democracy overseas.

Trump believes democracy may not be universally applicable. Current over-commitment on international issues can be attributed to the intense promotion of democracy in the current agenda. His viewpoints have been consistent with the general stance of Chinese nationalist. During his election campaign, Trump had repeatedly complimented the intelligence of Chinese leader and his frequent business interactions with Chinese. Therefore, he is quite popularly among regular Chinese inside the country.

In general, the effect of Trump’s diplomatic strategy on China is not specifically contained within certain aspects but how it introduced unpredictability to the Sino-US relationship. This is why, unlike the popularity Trump gained among ordinary Chinese citizens, Chinese officials have not been enthusiastic about the outcome of the election. For example, in the press conference of the closing ceremony of “The Two Meetings” (also known as “Lianghui” (The NPC and the CPPCC), Li Keqiang responded a US media stating that mutual benefits should be the essence of US-Sino relations, the progress of US-Sino relations will not be altered regardless of which president is elected. It demonstrated Li has not been concerned about the “tariff penalty” introduced by Trump.

Lou Jiwei, the former Minister of Finance of China, stated the behavior of Trump had brought uncertainty to the global economy in an interview with Wall Street Journal. For China, a predictable US will be more beneficial given the lack of combined capabilities to replace the US and the presence of internal and external threats. If Trump adopts isolationism, the existing rules of globalization will be undermined. It will cause disastrous effects to China’s development which is based on utilizing globalization to expand its economic relations and sphere of influence.

In his victory speech, Trump stated his desire to maintain a positive relationship with other countries. Structurally, the current outlook of US-Sino relations—characterized by both confrontation and cooperation—faces a number of constraints which cannot be solved by any individuals, including Trump. As a pragmatist, Trump understands the benefits offered by US-Sino relations. Therefore, prudence should be the essence of China’s strategy.



Simon Shen

Dr. Simon Shen is an Associate Professor & Director of Global Studies Program, Faculty of Social Science and Co-Director of International Affairs Research Center, Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is the chairman of Hong Kong International Relations Research Association (HKIRRA). He also serves as the lead writer of a Chinese newspaper called Hong Kong Economic Journal (Global). He is a graduate of Oxford and Yale University.