While much media attention has focused on the scandals of the two US presidential candidates, this year’s election will also have significant implications for the future of US-China relations, arguably the most important bilateral relationship of the 21st century.
Given that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have vastly different foreign policy agendas, it is very likely that US foreign policy towards China under Trump will be very different from the current one, which has been championed by nearly all administrations since 1979. Clinton’s foreign policy towards Beijing might not be too different from that of the current Obama administration, which is characterized by maintaining a workable bilateral relationship while managing geopolitical, economic, and ideological competition.
Clinton’s Likely China Policy
If Clinton is elected to the Oval Office, one has to look at her track record in handling US-China relations since the 1990s to predict her likely foreign policy towards China. Based on more than 20 years of an assertive stance on protecting human rights, it is predictable that she will continue to sharply disagree with Beijing on human rights norms. For example, when she attended the 4th UN World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, she declared, “women’s rights are human rights,” which had been interpreted by the Chinese public as a vague criticism of China’s human rights situation. Twenty years later, she called President Xi Jinping “shameless” for his detention of five Chinese feminists. Clinton has been blunter than Obama in criticizing Beijing’s internet controls. Also, Clinton irritated Beijing during the 2011 Arab Spring with her statement that the Chinese government could not “stop history” by preventing liberal democratic norms from spreading into China. Ultimately, she is a firm believer that adopting Western liberal democratic institutions is the best option for a nation to achieve its greatness, as these liberal ideas are widely perceived in the West and many democratic countries as “universal” values and the only benign way to rise peacefully.
Based on her human rights standards, she will most likely continue to vocally support political dissidents in China and criticize China over issues like Tibet. In response, Beijing may either ignore her administration’s harsh criticisms, or point out that the US has its own human rights problems like gun violence, police shootings, racial tensions, Guantanamo Bay, etc. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that differences over human rights will dominate the US-China relations under her administration, as issues like managing geopolitical differences are more important right now.
In geopolitics, Clinton pioneered America’s “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific. During the 2010 Asian Regional Security meeting in Hanoi, Clinton — then the US Secretary of State — declared that the United States has a national interest in freedom of navigation and respect for international law in the South China Sea. Her statement appeared to catch Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi off guard and was widely perceived by the media as the beginning of US diplomatic intervention to prevent China from eventually possessing the entire South China Sea, where neighboring countries like the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Malaysia are also claimants. Nevertheless, although Clinton is opposed to China’s claim, she also offered to help mediate the maritime dispute between the claimants.
In addition to the South China Sea, Clinton is also sympathetic to Taiwan’s democratic institutions and success. For example, during an interview with Taiwan’s Business Weekly magazine, she stated that in order for Taiwan’s liberal democratic political system to be safer, Taiwan must refrain from relying on China economically, as this will eventually erode Taiwan’s de facto political independence. Given that the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) now rules Taiwan, cross-strait relations will most likely remain contentious between the US and China if Clinton becomes President.
At the same time, however, Clinton will likely refrain from officially declaring solidarity with Taiwan’s self-constructed liberal democratic identity, since doing so may cause Beijing to interpret her action as directly supporting Taiwan’s political independence. Also, if her administration were to change the current US position regarding Taiwan — recognizing “One China” but preventing China from using force to resolve the conflict — US-China relations will become much more hostile. Other potential areas of bilateral cooperation —trade, combating climate change, and nuclear nonproliferation — could also be derailed. Ultimately, the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) was arguably meant for the US to possess a “strategic ambiguity” in order to deter both Beijing’s unilateral use of force against Taiwan and Taiwan’s unilateral declaration of independence. Given the TRA’s success in the past 30-plus years in maintaining stability across the Taiwan Strait, it is likely that Clinton will continue to follow the TRA in her approach to the Taiwan issue. It also means that a Clinton administration will continue to sell arms to Taiwan, similar to the Bush and Obama administrations, and will also maintain the current status quo and prevent any move by Taipei towards declaring de jure independence.
The challenge for Clinton is how to persuade Beijing that North Korea is no longer a reliable and dependable ally.
Although Clinton’s positions on human rights, the South China Sea, and Taiwan are anathematic to Beijing, she has also demonstrated remarkable abilities in utilizing realpolitik to maintain a workable and stable relationship with China. For example, during her visit to China in 2009, she told former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao that “it is essential that the United States and China have a positive, cooperative relationship,” and that differences over human rights norms “can’t interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crisis.” In her election campaign blueprint, Clinton stated that the United States and China — which are the largest polluters today — share a “unique responsibility” in resolving the current climate crisis, and her administration will continue to build upon what Presidents Obama and Xi Jinping have agreed upon at the UN Climate Summit in Paris. With the US and China taking the lead in cutting down greenhouse gas emissions, other major polluters like India and Brazil could be incentivized to cut down their own greenhouse gas emissions and adopt cleaner and sustainable sources of fuel (Clinton and Kane, 2016).
If the Clinton administration would like to continue upholding the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and prevent East Asia from descending into a multilateral nuclear arms race, she will have to persuade China to help curb Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal. Although Clinton had been blunt by threatening to “surround China with missile defense systems” if the latter does not put a cap on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, such a threat will likely have little effect in persuading Beijing to adopt tougher measures against Pyongyang.
At the same time, however, although North Korea remains an old strategic buffer zone for China against the US-South Korea alliance, the North Korean regime is taking advantage of China’s strategic needs by refusing to consider other Chinese interests, such as preserving regional stability and maintaining stable trade relationships with South Korea and the US, allowing China to rise in a peaceful environment. Since the US is already cooperating with China to end Iran’s nuclear weapons program and providing training to Chinese custom officials to prevent the smuggling of nuclear materials, it is not far-fetched for both Beijing and Washington to focus on denuclearizing Pyongyang. The challenge for Clinton is how to persuade Beijing that North Korea is no longer a reliable and dependable ally.
In addition, North Korea’s maturing nuclear capability will allow Pyongyang to have an independent foreign policy at the expense of Beijing’s strategic influence, while its adventurism like the continuing nuclear and missile tests is increasingly legitimizing the US military presence on the Korean Peninsula, which is not in Beijing’s interests. Since China itself is a great power with nuclear weapons — including mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of striking the whole of North America — China may not need North Korea in order to threaten the US, as has been pointed out by Chinese political scientist Zheng Yongnian. Such a situation could provide opportunities for the Clinton administration to approach Beijing, as the value of North Korea as a strategic buffer zone for Beijing is arguably decreasing, while both Washington and Beijing continue to share a long-term interest in a peaceful and nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.
Trump’s Likely China Policy
When compared with Clinton’s foreign policy towards China, Trump does not seem to have a detailed plan in handling the complexity of US-China relations. Given that he has been running a populist campaign aiming to garner the support of working-class whites who feel that they have been marginalized by globalization, he will have to honor some of his promises if elected into office. Therefore, he may be expected to take certain protectionist measures to bring manufacturing jobs back to his supporters, at the possible expense of the overall international economic wellbeing, including those of the US and China.
For example, Trump has promised that once he becomes President, he will impose 45 percent duties on all Chinese imports in order to protect American manufacturing jobs, even though such tariffs will significantly raise consumer prices in the US. A 45 percent tariff could also cause tens and thousands of Chinese workers in light industries and export businesses to lose their jobs. Therefore, in the short run, Trump’s trade policy could directly cause social instability in China. Given the amount of potential damage this 45 percent tariff could do to China, Beijing will most likely retaliate, leading to a large-scale trade war, which could in turn lead to another global recession. With a protectionist trade relationship in place, many Chinese investments in the US could be jeopardized, not to mention Chinese Americans and Chinese citizens living in the US may face a much more xenophobic, hostile, and potentially violent environment. As a result, Trump’s policy regarding US-China bilateral trade is not only entirely different from those of the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations, but it also runs against the long-held belief that international trade will eventually benefit everyone and prevent the outbreak of armed conflict. In Trump’s mind, trade is part of zero-sum politics.
While Trump’s “America First” trade policy is aimed at protecting American manufacturing jobs, his “America First” foreign policy is also very different from US foreign policy since the end of World War II. For example, regarding the US alliance structure in the Asia-Pacific, Trump has argued that the US should not be a “world policeman.” He also said that South Korea and Japan should either pay the US more for their defense or arm themselves with nuclear weapons, since he thinks that the U.S.-Japan mutual defense treaty is “not a fair deal.” Thus, Trump’s “America First” foreign policy is more isolationist when compared with previous administrations. In addition, with regard to North Korea’s illegal possession of nuclear weapons, Trump has stated that he will directly talk to Kim Jong Un if elected.
At first glance, such a foreign policy agenda — especially the retreat from the current US-led alliance system — may appeal to Beijing and the majority of Chinese audiences. However, although the current US-led international order hampers certain Chinese strategic goals, China has also indirectly benefitted from US hegemony in the past 30 years, as it allowed China to focus on economic growth and subsequently march towards the “rejuvenation” of the Chinese nation. In other words, it is the presence of the US-led security order after World War II that has guaranteed a peaceful environment allowing different Asian countries — including China since 1978 — to focus on economic growth rather than constantly devoting expending their national resources to prepare for war.
Trump’s proposals could cause Beijing to live in a far more hostile and unpredictable geopolitical environment.
Under this logic, the post-World War II international order — especially after the Cold War — is characterized by the US as the dominant state establishing economic and military leadership in order to ensure both international security and economic prosperity, serving the interests of the US itself, its allies, and other countries like India and post-1978 China. The US provides security — by means of conventional military assistance and a nuclear umbrella under mutual defense treaties — to its allies so they do not need to develop their own nuclear deterrence. Subsequently, with a relatively weak Japanese military, Beijing does not need to spend too much effort preparing for another large-scale conflict with its historical rival. On the other hand, great powers outside of the US-led alliance system — like China, India and Russia — maintain their own nuclear deterrence and conventional militaries to check the power of the US and its allies. Thus, with the cost of war under the current international order extremely high, most countries — including non-US allies like China — focus on improving their citizens’ economic wellbeing, while benefiting indirectly from the US-led alliance system and directly from the current international order, which is characterized by stability resulting from the balance of power and increasing cultural-economic ties.
However, if Trump’s call for a reduced US role in guaranteeing the security of its allies materializes, with Japan and South Korea “going nuclear,” the post-Cold War security order could break down. Since Japan has the industrial capability to build nuclear warheads “virtually overnight,” if the US nuclear umbrella is no longer deemed credible, Japan could immediately manufacture nuclear weapons at the expense of Chinese and South Korean national security. This would cause the NPT to become completely defunct. Unlike the Cold War, in a hypothetical multipolar nuclear era which Trump’s proposals could cause, no major nuclear power enjoys the luxury of worrying about just one adversary, so they must develop expansive and risky nuclear postures to take multiple potential adversaries into consideration. For example, if the US improves its ballistic missile defense system, such a move could prompt China and Russia to improve their ballistic missiles’ penetration capabilities, but this could then trigger India and Japan to enhance their own nuclear weapons, leading to an uncontrollable multipolar nuclear arms race.
In addition, Trump has said that he is willing to talk to Kim Jong Un in order to end North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. According to CATO Institute scholar Doug Bandow, although directly negotiating with the Hermit Kingdom could possibly persuade Pyongyang to accept restriction on future nuclear arms developments and proliferation, there is no guarantee that North Korea will give up nuclear arms, which is the common interest of the US, South Korea, Japan, and China. Also, directly engaging the North Korean leadership would enhance Pyongyang’s prestige, potentially drawing Pyongyang away from China. If this is the case, the negotiation would not only fail to guarantee a nuclear-free DPRK, but Pyongyang’s independent foreign policy would indeed become materialized at the expense of China’s strategic influence. Then not only would Beijing risk losing its strategic buffer zone, but it would also have to face a reckless and unpredictable nuclear power right across the Yalu River.
Hence, while Clinton will preserve the US-led alliance system and prevent Russia and China from militarily challenging the US-led international order, Trump’s proposals could cause Beijing to live in a far more hostile and unpredictable geopolitical environment. Ultimately, the absence of the US-led alliance system — along with an isolationist America — could indirectly lead to a far more unpredictable, militarized, and hostile international political and security environment for Beijing and the entire Asia-Pacific region. Regarding international trade, Trump’s “America First” trade policy will likely raise consumer prices in the US, spark a trade war with China, endanger China’s social stability, and possibly cause another global recession.
Although Clinton has a record for being tough towards Beijing, once elected into the Oval Office, her foreign policy toward China would not be too different from those of the administrations before her. Thus, she will likely continue to uphold the US-led international order characterized by international trade, the US-led alliance system, and solving political disputes though multilateral institutions and negotiations. Similar to the Obama administration’s relations with China, her administration will continue to have differences with Beijing over human rights standards, the South China Sea, and Taiwan. Nevertheless, her administration will also continue to cooperate with Beijing over issues like climate change and nuclear nonproliferation, since these challenges cannot be solved by one state alone. One of the challenges which her administration will face is obtaining further cooperation from Beijing to rein in Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program. Ultimately, just like what Obama, Bush, and her husband had done, Clinton will have to continue maintaining a workable relationship with Beijing, while managing competition over contentious issues like the South China Sea, human rights, and Taiwan.
However, if Trump is elected to the Oval Office, his approach to China will be radically different from those of previous administrations. Not only would Trump’s “America First” foreign policy retreat from upholding the current international order, it could also destabilize the Asia-Pacific region by allowing Japan and South Korea to possess nuclear weapons, while enhancing the prestige of North Korea, which has a track record of disregarding international laws and institutions, the interests of partners like China, and regional stability. When compared with Clinton’s likely foreign policy toward China, the political environment in the Asia-Pacific resulting from Trump’s foreign policy could be more hostile and unpredictable for Beijing. Meanwhile, leveraging massive tariffs against Chinese products could potentially cause social unrest in China, a trade war, and possibly another economic recession. As such, while Clinton is arguably “tough” towards China, Trump’s isolationism and protectionism could be unpredictable and destabilizing for China.
Clinton, H. and Kaine, T. (2016). Stronger Together: A Blueprint for America’s Future. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.