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What Should China Think of Trump?

The Skeptics

All of these are good reasons for Beijing to be cautiously optimistic that Donald Trump’s presidency will provide a valuable strategic opportunity for China to build its new model of great-power relations in Asia, with China in charge.

But one hopes they will nonetheless approach him with caution, because there is something dangerously unpredictable about Trump. Indeed the risk as seen from China is not that Trump will be magically transformed into a steady, committed orthodox hawk, as many Republicans now hope. It is that, even while he pulls America back from Asia, he could still in a crisis react with his characteristic impulsive irresponsibility, launching strike operations the way he launches tweets with little thought of the consequences.

So if they are wise, China’s leaders will be very careful about how they test Donald Trump’s resolve. They will not want to move to soon, or too fast, to demonstrate how the mantle of regional leadership is shifting, to avoid creating confrontations in which Trump’s pugnacious instincts overcome get the better of his “America First” restraint.

If this is right, we can expect Beijing to give Trump plenty of room and time, to avoid dramas and to take only the thinnest slices of salami until they have his measure. But don’t be misled by that: from Zhongnanhai, Donald Trump is likely to look like very good news indeed.

Hugh White is professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University in Canberra.

Image: Chinese flags for sale in Tiananmen Square. Flickr/Creative Commons/Andrew Phillipo

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Staffing Is Key to Trump's Foreign-Policy Legacy

The Skeptics

All of these are good reasons for Beijing to be cautiously optimistic that Donald Trump’s presidency will provide a valuable strategic opportunity for China to build its new model of great-power relations in Asia, with China in charge.

But one hopes they will nonetheless approach him with caution, because there is something dangerously unpredictable about Trump. Indeed the risk as seen from China is not that Trump will be magically transformed into a steady, committed orthodox hawk, as many Republicans now hope. It is that, even while he pulls America back from Asia, he could still in a crisis react with his characteristic impulsive irresponsibility, launching strike operations the way he launches tweets with little thought of the consequences.

So if they are wise, China’s leaders will be very careful about how they test Donald Trump’s resolve. They will not want to move to soon, or too fast, to demonstrate how the mantle of regional leadership is shifting, to avoid creating confrontations in which Trump’s pugnacious instincts overcome get the better of his “America First” restraint.

If this is right, we can expect Beijing to give Trump plenty of room and time, to avoid dramas and to take only the thinnest slices of salami until they have his measure. But don’t be misled by that: from Zhongnanhai, Donald Trump is likely to look like very good news indeed.

Hugh White is professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University in Canberra.

Image: Chinese flags for sale in Tiananmen Square. Flickr/Creative Commons/Andrew Phillipo

Pages

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