The Trump presidency: How will it affect relations with China?

Trade, the environment, and human rights are on the list of issues that may face a change in approach.

Ng Han Guan/Associated Press
A Chinese man holds up a newspaper with the front page photo of US President-elect Donald Trump and the headline 'Outsider counter attack' at a newsstand in Beijing, Thursday.

Donald Trump railed against few countries as often and as vehemently as he did against China in the run-up to his victory Tuesday. Yet how much of his heated campaign rhetoric will shape concrete policy remains unclear, as does the future of one of the world’s most important bilateral relationships.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty,” says Jia Qingguo, dean of the School of International Relations at Peking University, echoing the sentiments expressed by many Chinese foreign policy experts.

Here’s a look at some of the major questions that lie ahead:

Will Trump start a trade war with China?

While economists are anticipating a rise in US trade barriers, many say a full-blown trade war is unlikely. Still, Mr. Trump vocally denounced what he called China's unfair trade practices. The president-elect has promised to declare the country a currency manipulator on his first day in office and to slap punitive tariffs of 45 percent on Chinese goods.

But despite Trump’s tough talk, the currents of globalization run strong, and would be very difficult to reverse. Dani Rodrik, a professor of international economy at Harvard University, writes for The New York Times that he expects Trump will soon understand, if he doesn’t already, “the senselessness of blanket protectionism.”

That’s not to say a trade war is impossible. In an editorial published Tuesday, the state-run Global Times warned that Trump’s focus on “US economic interests” could threaten “to turn Sino-US relations from a geopolitical rivalry to an economic conflict.”

The Global Times reassures readers that China would be able to cope. But Michael Pettis, a finance professor at Peking University, says the country’s economy is in a vulnerable position as it undergoes difficult reforms.

“If I were Beijing, I would definitely be worried,” he says.

What will Trump’s “America first” approach to foreign policy mean for China?

China undoubtedly sees a geopolitical opportunity to further establish itself as the key power in Asia Pacific region. Whereas Hillary Clinton was expected to double down on President Obama’s “pivot” to Asia, Trump may instead pull back. Such a decision would be welcomed in Beijing.

The Chinese foreign policy establishment, which considers the pivot a containment policy, has long wanted to upend the US-led postwar order in the region. If Trump follows through on his promise to reduce Washington's global strategic presence to focus on domestic issues, it may finally have its chance. 

For starters, Trump’s isolationist policies could give China an opening to expand its influence in the South China Sea, where territorial disputes have prompted some countries to warm ties with Washington, and concerns over militarization of the region have deepened. American disengagement from the region could lead countries like Vietnam, Myanmar, and the Philippines to align themselves more closely with Beijing.  

But there are troubling prospects for China if Trump follows through on some of his more radical foreign policy proposals in the region. His threat to cut military support to South Korea and Japan, two longtime US allies, could lead them to develop their own nuclear arsenals to counter threats from North Korea and a nuclear-armed China. The prospect of a nuclear arms race in Asia would certainly unsettle Beijing. Some 54,000 US military personnel are currently stationed in Japan, while about 28,500 US troops are based in South Korea.

What will Trump do about human rights in China?

Trump has shown little interest in holding China accountable for its human rights record. During the campaign, he even lauded the strength of the Chinese government for its violent 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square, which led to hundreds and possibly thousands of deaths. His comments stand in sharp contrast those made by Mrs. Clinton, who has been an outspoken critic of China’s tight grip on civil society for decades.

Intolerance for dissent has intensified under President Xi Jinping. Hundreds of human rights activists and legal professionals have been detained or questioned since he took office in 2012. The most recent example of his tightening grip came on Monday, when China's legislature approved a cybersecurity law that critics warn will further restrict freedom of expression online.

“I really question how Trump will respond to all these issues,” says Patrick Poon, a China researcher for Amnesty International. “What he has said so far raises a lot of concerns about how he will work on human rights in China.”

If Trump exhibits little interest in China’s internal affairs, human rights activists worry that the Communist Party could also expand its repressive tactics in the restive regions of Tibet and Xinjiang.

What about the future of US-China cooperation on climate change?

Trump is a staunch denier of climate change. He once even tweeted that it was a concept created by the Chinese. Although he later said it was a joke, he has repeatedly called climate change a “hoax,” and appears eager to undo one of Mr. Obama’s proudest legacies.

That’s bad news for the future of global efforts aimed at tackling a warming climate and its effects. In 2014, Obama and Mr. Xi signed a landmark agreement to curb carbon emissions that set the stage for the international climate treaty negotiated last year in Paris. Trump has pledged to abrogate the agreement and “cancel” the Paris accord, which went into force Nov. 3.

Environmentalists warn that Trump’s refusal to follow through on Obama’s pledge to reduce carbon emissions in the US, the world’s second-largest emitter behind China, could shatter the already fragile coalition.  

Regardless of Trump’s plans, Beijing is likely to go ahead with plans to cut carbon emissions, says Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs and one of China's most prominent environmentalists.

“China has its own logic in dealing with this issue,” he says, from reducing air and water pollution to curbing overcapacity in the steel industry. “I don’t think that is going to change.”

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