Seems counterintuitive. Are we or are we not in the middle of a protracted trade war between the U.S. and China engineered by the president? For years, American politicians talked tough about making China pay for its unfair trade practices and did next to nothing to actually stop them. Trump was different. He’s not beyond putting pressure on China on human rights either, as we saw just 48 hours ago. And of course he’s unpredictable, even to his own advisors. It can’t help but unsettle the east’s rising dominant power that the west’s dominant power is led by someone who’s openly skeptical of them and who often seems capable of anything.
Surely China’s position is “Anyone But Trump” in 2020.
“Trump is a businessman. We can just pay him money and the problems will be solved,” said a politically connected person in Beijing, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly about sensitive international issues. “As long as we have money, we can buy him. That’s the reason why we prefer him to Democrats.”
Trump’s unfiltered tweets help China in negotiations because he is “easy to read,” said Long Yongtu, a former vice minister of foreign trade and China’s point man during its accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001, at a conference in Shenzhen this month. “We want Trump to be reelected; we would be glad to see that happen.”
Another influential voice in Beijing, Tsinghua University international relations professor Yan Xuetong, wrote recently that, thanks to Trump, China was facing “the best strategic opportunity” since the Cold War.
“Trump has undermined the U.S.-led alliance system, which has improved China’s international environment,” Yan said in Southern Review…
“Trump isn’t ideologically opposed to China. He doesn’t go on about human rights and Xinjiang and the South China Sea,” the Beijing insider said, referring to China’s contested maritime claims and to its northwestern region where authorities have detained a million Muslims.
Let’s think more about the argument up top, that China would never prefer Trump. Of course it’s true that he’s been tough on trade with Beijing. What’s not necessarily true, though, is that he’d be tougher than any Democrat who might succeed him. Tougher than Joe Biden? Yeah, very likely. Grandpa Joe often sounds sanguine about the threat from Beijing; given a choice between him and Trump, the Chinese government would likely prefer the Democrat. But what about Elizabeth Warren? She also has a protectionist streak, and unlike Trump she seems willing to dig in on other points of dispute between her party and China, starting with climate change. It’s not just Warren either. For months, whenever foreign policy has come up at a Democratic debate, the candidates have seemed united in the belief that China is America’s top threat abroad. Now that Trump has made trade war with China acceptable to Republicans, Democrats have a much freer hand in getting tough with Beijing.
What about human rights? The president deserves credit for signing the new sanctions legislation in support of Hong Kong’s protesters but it’s an open question whether he would have done so and risked upending trade talks if the bill hadn’t passed with veto-proof majorities in both chambers. As noted in this post, his statement after signing left open the possibility that he won’t enforce the sanctions, or at least won’t enforce them consistently. No one’s under any illusions either that he feels strong emotional affinity for human-rights protesters taking on an authoritarian regime. The opposite is truer — he’s always seemed to identity with authority more so than those oppressed by it, up to and including famous cases in China’s own recent past. He reportedly told Xi Jinping in June that he wouldn’t speak out in support of Hong Kong as a gesture of goodwill towards the regime and kept that promise until Congress forced him to either sign the new bill or watch as they tore up his veto in front of him. If you’re a party apparatchik in Beijing, whom would you rather deal with? President Trump, who doesn’t much care about Chinese Muslims being sent to concentration camps or Hong Kong protesters being clubbed by police, or President Warren, who might start trying to build a coalition of western countries to sanction China for those practices?
As for Trump’s unpredictability, it’s broadly true that one never knows what he might do but he has clear preferences in certain policy areas and foreign policy is one. After an uncharacteristic show of force early in his presidency against Bashar Assad, Trump has bent over backwards to avoid conflict. American leaders shunned North Korea’s regime for decades but Trump was willing to meet face to face with Kim. He stood aside when Erdogan insisted that Turkey should finally attack America’s Kurdish allies. He reminded the world just yesterday that he wants peace talks with the Taliban and a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. After Iran downed a U.S. drone earlier this year, Trump’s hawkish advisors begged him to retaliate — but Trump declined, wary that a tit-for-tat would spiral into war. And despite the endless heat he’s taken for his softness on Russia and two years of suspicions about his relationship with Putin in the form of the Russiagate investigation, he continues to say to this day that he’d love to have better relations with the Kremlin.
That is to say, although Trump is “unpredictable,” it’s not the sort of unpredictable where China might fear an out-of-the-blue sneak attack by the U.S. military. It’s more the sort of unpredictable where Xi Jinping might wake up one morning to find that the U.S. has pulled out of NATO, or withdrawn all of its troops from Japan and South Korea, or declared that it no longer has any national interest in Taiwanese independence. China can live with the sort of unpredictability that would involve the White House suddenly declaring that it recognizes the Far East as China’s sphere of influence and will no longer challenge it there.
So yeah, maybe China is quietly rooting for a second Trump term.
But hold that thought: News is circulating today that the president intends to use next week’s NATO summit to emphasize the threat from China, including the surveillance risks posed by Chinese involvement in 5G technology. “There are continuing challenges that NATO needs to face, China above all,” said one U.S. official to CNBC about the American message for the summit. Whether it’s Trump himself who feels that way or the U.S. diplomatic bureaucracy that does are two separate questions, though; it would be surprising to find the president suddenly warming to NATO, even as a counterweight to Chinese influence abroad, given how he’s just cut America’s contribution to the organization’s budget. It’d be even more surprising to find him pushing NATO to be more aggressive towards China at a moment when he’s worried that the new Hong Kong legislation from Congress has already risked a rupture in ongoing trade talks. But he is, after all, unpredictable. Stay tuned.
I’ll leave you with this, a little goodwill from a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry.
Out of respect for President Trump, US & its people, on the occasion of thanksgiving day, I pay special thanks to US for squandering trillions of dollars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria… pic.twitter.com/9WMNoHdSML
— Lijian Zhao 赵立坚 (@zlj517) November 29, 2019