Donald Trump’s recent phone call to Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen and his questioning of the one-China policy have exacerbated the already-tense China-U.S. relationship. Not only has the president-elect flagrantly violated diplomatic protocol, but he has also done so in an area that has been carefully and discreetly managed since the signing of the Shanghai Communique in 1972 paved the way for the normalization of relations between the two countries.
But this is far from the only issue on which Trump poses a grave threat to China-U.S. relations, where concerted action to fight climate change formed the stable bedrock of bilateral diplomacy during the Obama administration. Now, Trump’s advocacy of fracking, a controversial technique for extracting oil and natural gas from the earth, as well as his commitment to removing the United States from the Paris Agreement, risks undermining this progress.
Trade and economic issues are further areas of concern. The president-elect regularly attacked Beijing’s alleged manipulation of the yuan during his electoral campaign and has signaled his intent to formally label China a currency manipulator upon his inauguration, in addition to pledging to slap 45-percent tariffs on Chinese imports. Trump has also promised a $500 billion increase in military spending, a source of concern given the growing militarization of the South and East China Seas.
However, while bilateral relations between the two nations may be heading for choppier waters, a Trump presidency may usher in a period of opportunity for China to consolidate its credentials as a responsible global leader — especially in environmental policy, trade, and military affairs. For China, this might mean a shot in the arm, a chance for its leaders to burnish its hard-sought status as a major international power.
The Paris Agreement represents significant progress in global coordination to combat climate change. The president-elect’s primary motivation in withdrawing from it is to aid the growth of the American fracking sector. This may tap into untold reserves of oil and gas below U.S. soil but may also unleash devastating environmental harm.
Trump’s deregulatory energy policy is at odds with the emerging international consensus to combat climate change, but according to Professor Kelly Sims Gallagher of Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, a U.S. withdrawal does not spell the end of the climate deal. “China is being extremely clear that it intends to stay the course, which indeed is a very ambitious target,” Gallagher said. “There’s the pledge to peak emissions but also to achieve a very high percentage of non-fossil energy in their primary energy supply — there’s a carbon intensity target, an energy intensity target. So, I think that they will not slow down.”
Despite concerns that China may lower its own environmental targets in the absence of U.S. ratification, the nation remains likely to provide valuable leadership on international climate policy. First, a domestic coalition comprising top-level government officials, municipal administrations, the business community, civil society, and the general public supports action to counter severe air pollution, which kills over 1.5 million people every year. Numerous cities across China have seen anti-pollution protests, while activist members of the business community, including real estate magnate Pan Shiyi, have campaigned for clean air alongside international and domestic nongovernmental organizations, raising public awareness of the climate issues facing China.
China’s leaders, both in Beijing and at the regional level, are aware not only of the rising tide of public opinion but also of the current and future harm that the nation’s pollution problem presents. There is a clear domestic mandate for President Xi Jinping’s administration to lead from the front on international climate policy.
Trade and economic policy under the Trump administration will also prove challenging to U.S.-China relations. Adding to his campaign pledge to label China as a currency manipulator, Trump recently announced that he will mandate U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free-trade deal encompassing 12 countries from around the Pacific Rim. He also plans to remove the United States from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
China stands poised to take advantage of the U.S. retreat from efforts to liberalize international trade. In November, Beijing celebrated the anniversary of its free-trade agreement with Australia and announced the commencement of talks aimed at upgrading existing trade arrangements with New Zealand, Chile, and Peru. But China’s approach to free trade is not merely bilateral. The country has participated in negotiations toward the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a proposed trade agreement that would encompass all members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, in addition to China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, and New Zealand. It would not, however, include the United States.
Noted China skeptic Gordon Chang wrote: “The issue for America is not, as some think, TPP versus no TPP. The issue is whether the Asia-Pacific region follows Washington’s vision of trade or Beijing’s.” While Chang has been ridiculed in the Chinese press, on this point he is correct. If the Trump administration does impose punitive tariffs on China and withdraws from the TPP, the path will be cleared for China to become a leader of trade liberalization in the Asia-Pacific region.
Chinese trade officials have also said they will invoke their nation’s rights as a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) if Trump does order the application of 45-percent tariffs on Chinese imports. If Trump develops a practice of non-compliance with U.S. WTO commitments, the international trade body may lean on Beijing to uphold its stability. This would be a boon for China, which desires a greater flow of goods and services transiting through the “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure network for the much-vaunted political and economic initiative to succeed.
Beyond shifts in economic and environmental policy, President-elect Trump’s pledge to increase U.S. military spending by $500 billion would bring total annual outlays to $1 trillion. At a time when tense military relations prevail in the East and South China Seas, any form of escalation would threaten a delicate peace. But the president-elect has also suggested that countries currently hosting U.S. military personnel will have to increase the amount they pay for the privilege.
A reduction in American presence or rhetoric in East Asia may accelerate a nascent power shift in the region, first marked by the election of Rodrigo Duterte. The president of the Philippines made a state visit to China in October 2016 after casting doubt on the veracity of the U.S. commitment to come to the Philippines’ aid in the event of a military emergency. Duterte’s shift in alliance will add momentum to Chinese efforts to reduce the sway that the U.S. has held over the Asia-Pacific since the end of World War II.
Others wonder whether China is ready to assume all that comes with being an international military power. A spate of deaths among Chinese forces deployed in South Sudan has caused concern among military commanders who have since chosen to advance more slowly, wary of the limited combat experience of the men serving under them. Trump’s retreat from mutual defense obligations may create an opening for China to assert itself as an international military power, but this is a transition that will take an emotional toll on the nation’s citizens and perhaps have political and economic implications for its leaders.
Overall, the Chinese government’s foreign policy posturing suggests that it covets a leadership role in international politics. Chinese leaders have long spoken of China’s “peaceful development” or “peaceful rise,” while the active role that the nation has played in U.N. peacekeeping activities in Sudan, the Afghanistan peace process, and the Paris Agreement negotiations all suggest a country that is ready to become a global leader. Trump’s support of a reduced American role in the fields of global environmental protection, international trade, and military cooperation opens up an opportunity for China to solidify its status as a global power. It is an opportunity the Xi administration will seek to grasp with both hands.
(Header image: A vendor takes a 100 yuan note above a newspaper featuring a photo of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump at a newsstand in Beijing, Nov, 10, 2016. Greg Baker/AFP/VCG)