Asia
Commentary

China and the U.S. Election

By Yun Sun
in Program

As Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump enter the final stage of the presidential campaign, China watches their foreign policy statements closely for indications of their future positions on China. Such a keen interest is well-justified, since a new administration will always bring changes to U.S.-China relations. And, as both countries laud their ties as “the most important bilateral relationship” in the world today, there is no question that the interaction between the next U.S. president and China will have major rippling effects across the rest of the world.

It is no longer a secret that a potential Trump presidency is viewed in a largely positive light in China. Although Trump has not been particularly China-friendly (and even made some radical and negative comments about the country), the Chinese observers nonetheless believe that as a successful businessman, a President Trump will be able to demonstrate needed flexibility and pragmatism in his China policy rather than letting ideology or “principles” interfere.

Trump’s fondness for negotiations plays well with the Chinese: China is never afraid of negotiations. In fact, Beijing’s only fear is that certain principles of the United States are nonnegotiable. Although the Chinese are not so romantic as to believe that a President Trump will stop defending U.S. national interests, the perception that such interests are negotiable are essentially seen as good news for China.

Furthermore, Trump’s “pragmatism” on burden sharing with allies, including those in NATO and in Northeast Asia, also translates into a potential waning of U.S. presence and influence globally. For a revisionist China trying to expand its influence and tilt the power equilibrium in the region, these developments would certainly be good news. In this sense, many of Trump’s less than friendly China comments were dismissed as campaign rhetoric, which presumably would not transpire when he becomes the president.

Such optimism is entirely gone when it comes to a potential Hillary Clinton Administration. Regardless of her statements and/or campaign rhetoric, many Chinese observers are firmly convinced that a Hillary Clinton presidency will be highly negative for the rise of China and its foreign ambitions. Such concerns are primarily motivated by the belief that Hillary Clinton and her team are responsible for the design and implementation of the U.S. “Pivot to Asia” rebalancing strategy.  In China’s eyes, this pivot seeks to suppress China’s strategic space and expansion of influence in the Asia Pacific. The rebalancing strategy has amplified the strategic competition between China and the United States, resulting in the rising tension in the South China Sea. While the U.S. maintains that it upholds the principle of the freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution of disputes, China nonetheless believes that U.S. intervention is what has emboldened the Southeast Asian claimant countries.

Hillary Clinton has a much longer history of being tough on China. She was critical of China as early as 1995, when during the World Women’s Congress in Beijing, she said “Human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights,” in a statement directed at the leadership in Beijing.  She also criticized China on internet freedom when she was the Secretary of State.

Despite China’s favorable perception of Trump, there is a realistic understanding among well-informed Chinese analysts at this stage that the chance of a Clinton victory is significantly larger than the alternative scenario. This might explain China’s assertive behaviors today on issues such as the South China Sea. If it is anticipated that the next U.S. president will be “tougher” on China, the best strategy for Beijing is to improve its negotiating position as much as possible before he/she steps in.

Beijing expects more pressure on China by a President Hillary Clinton, manifested in enhancements of U.S. alliance systems, security partnerships and military deployments in Asia. A president Hillary Clinton would also be expected to be more vocal on “matters of principle” including China’s human rights record, Taiwan, Tibet and trade policies. On these issues, China believes that Clinton is fundamentally biased against China.

Having said that, there is a recognition in China that Hillary Clinton’s China policy would not be too extreme or become too radical. The “checks and balances” within the U.S. government system means that any president’s China policy will be subject to congressional oversight and balancing efforts. Personal beliefs and preferences are important, but may not be sufficient to completely reverse the direction of U.S.-China relations. Furthermore, the Chinese take comfort in the fact that the U.S. will have to cooperate economically with China no matter who becomes president. As long as China remains a key market and investment destination for American businesses, Beijing finds some reassurance that neither candidate will rock the boat too much. 

This article originally appeared in The Cipher Brief, on August 8, 2016. 
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