China: The Real Winner of the 2016 Election

MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter over the flight deck of USS McCampbell in the South China Sea. Flickr/U.S. Navy

Can the U.S.-China relationship survive a Twitter president?

After a president of the United States takes office, he normally enjoys what is called a “honeymoon period,” which is when the public and Congress generally approve of his actions and policies. During this time period, the president often receives high approval ratings. The same can be said for the relationship between the president and foreign leaders. They, too, grant him time to understand the intricacies of the position and get a feel for how the United States works with their respective countries. The U.S. president receives much goodwill from many actors in order to ensure a smooth transition between administrations. With President Donald Trump, it does not appear that there will be much of a honeymoon period with the American public or even with some foreign countries—particularly the People’s Republic of China.

All signs point to China taking advantage of the transition between administrations, and Trump’s inexperience at governing, to have its own sort of honeymoon. The Chinese—along with the rest of the world—face a similar situation. Other countries will wait to see what form a Trump presidency takes. Will his actions and policies be as aggressive as his tweets? Will his online Twitter persona differ from face-to-face interactions and negotiations with foreign leaders? At the same time, they will wait to see which of Trump’s foreign-policy campaign promises and statements will take precedent over others. Which region will he focus on? Which bilateral relationships will he view as most important? Which countries will be ignored at the get-go? How will he respond to aggression by another country? While other countries adopt a wait-and-see approach, China will test the limits of Trump’s patience.

The failures of the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia, and Trump’s promise not to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, give China the opportunity to become the major power in the region. Its Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership will become the dominant multilateral trade organization in Asia, and the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank and the “One Belt One Road” initiative will ensure that all trade is centered on China. It has the mechanisms in place to dominate Asia economically and militarily as a Trump administration seeks to disengage from the world.

China Sets an Early Tone

After China seized a U.S. underwater drone in December 2016, Trump responded to the situation with harsh tweets against China’s actions. In response to Trump, the Global Times, a newspaper run by the Communist Party in China, published an op-ed that expressed the country’s rationale for dealing with the impending Trump presidency. “Trump is not behaving as a president who will become master of the White House in a month,” the op-ed states. “He bears no sense of how to lead a superpower. . . . One thing for sure is that Trump has no leverages to maneuver the world, nor can he reshape China-U.S. relations and the way the two major powers interact. . . . If he treats China after assuming office in the same way as in his tweets, China will not exercise restraint.” Recent actions taken by China indicate that it will continue its push for an increased presence throughout Asia and the Pacific, and it certainly will amp up pressure against Japan, Taiwan and claimants of islands in the South China Sea.

Since Trump’s victory in November 2016, China has incrementally increased its military presence throughout the region. In late November, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force conducted a flyby through the Miyako Strait, south of Okinawa. This move prompted the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force to scramble its jets. While the PLAAF did not enter Japanese airspace, the Chinese have increased the number of such flybys in 2016, angering Japan. Another such incident occurred in December. That time, both Japanese and Chinese government officials accused one another of engaging in dangerous activities that threatened the lives of the pilots. Then, in early January, both South Korea and Japan had to scramble their jets after Chinese aircraft flew between the two countries and over the Sea of Japan. According to Japan, the number of times it has had respond to Chinese aircrafts by scrambling its Defense Force has almost doubled from 2015.

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