I participated on Wednesday in a Chinese talk show on Chinese-owned Phoenix TV on the election of Donald Trump. There the glee was palpable about the victory of a man that Chinese state-run media has dubbed a “clown” and held up as an example of why the Chinese are better off living in a one-party state.
Underlying the glee was a belief of the guests, most of them leading Chinese analysts or former diplomats, that a Trump administration would cede the Western Pacific to China, downgrade its alliances with Japan and South Korea and not carry through on the candidate’s threats to slap tariffs on Chinese goods. Perhaps, I thought, my fellow panelists should be careful what they wished for.
To be sure, many in the Chinese government did not like Hillary Clinton. She made headlines in 1995 at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, criticizing China’s family-planning policies. As secretary of state, she, more than President Obama, was the originator of “the pivot,” the United States’ move to refocus its power on Asia.
On the campaign trail, Trump criticized Clinton’s Asia policy and mused about pulling U.S. troops out of South Korea and Japan if they didn’t pay more for American defense. He floated the idea that perhaps the two longtime U.S. allies could even become nuclear powers. Chinese analysts were giddy at the prospect of a U.S. retreat from Asia.
But, increasingly, Trump’s musings on Asia appear to be more of a ploy to wrest more dollars from U.S. allies than a genuine threat to exit the region. On Wednesday, Trump assured South Korean President Park Geun-hye that the United States would defend South Korea from any North Korean aggression. Trump also agreed to meet with Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, in New York next week.
Trump has also vowed to add more than 70 ships to the U.S. naval fleet, turning it into a force of 350 surface ships and submarines. To ride herd over this massive buildup, Trump has reportedly tapped Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) to be the next secretary of the Navy. Forbes has long supported a bigger Navy and stronger pushback against China in the South China Sea.
Other signs point to a more assertive U.S. policy in Asia. This week, two of Trump’s campaign advisers — an economics professor named Peter Navarro, known for his strong criticism of China, and Alexander Gray, who served as an adviser to Forbes — published an essay in Foreign Policy magazine arguing that the Obama administration had not been tough enough on China and that a Trump presidency would pursue a policy of “peace through strength” in Asia. Navarro and Gray described the Obama administration’s “pivot” as “talking loudly but carrying a small stick” and vowed a more forceful response to China’s maneuvers in the East and South China seas. Another Trump adviser is Michael Pillsbury, a former Defense Department official, who recently authored a book, “The Hundred-Year Marathon,” in which he accuses generations of U.S. leaders of being bamboozled by Beijing and outlines what he claims to be a Chinese plot to dominate the world.
On trade, while the guests on the show Wednesday night seemed blithe to Trump’s scheme to hit Chinese exports to the United States with tariffs or label China a currency manipulator, there is nothing to suggest that Trump won’t make good on these promises to pursue a far more protectionist path. Already, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a massive trade deal in the Asia Pacific, is dead.
Again this is bad news for Beijing. China’s exports to the United States have bankrolled the modernization of China’s military, science, technology and infrastructure and helped to improve the lives of countless millions. While exports to the United States are no longer as central as they once were to China’s prosperity, with a shaky economy, Beijing needs all the business it can get.
Near the end of the show, a young man from the audience asked whether the prospect of better relations between the United States and Russia would end up hurting China. None of the assembled seemed concerned. But it very well could. China shares a long border with Russia and a long, difficult history with the empire to its north. Despite a common interest in opposing U.S. power, tensions exist under the surface between Moscow and Beijing.
Listening to the talk from the panelists about Russia, I remembered reading the transcript of a conversation between President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger just a week before Nixon made his historic trip to China in February 1972. “I think in 20 years your successor, if he’s as wise as you,” Kissinger said, “will wind up leaning towards the Russians against the Chinese.” The president agreed.
John Pomfret, a former China correspondent for The Post, is author of a forthcoming book on U.S.-China relations, The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present.