Why China Presents Itself As a Vanguard of Free Trade

The United States will have to allay concerns among allies lest it risks losing the mantle of leadership to China for good.

A specter is haunting America’s primacy in Asia – the specter of strategic uncertainty under a Donald Trump presidency. The widely unexpected election of the celebrity and real estate tycoon, who has zero experience in political office, has sent shock waves across America and the world. In Asia, in particular, most leaders were expecting and/or looking forward to working with the Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who, in her former capacity as the secretary of state, had extensive interactions with the region.

To be sure, Clinton wasn’t the preferred candidate of China, which loathed her tough stance on South China Sea and human rights issues. Hindu nationalists, meanwhile, rooted for Trump, a popular businessmen who made offensive statements against Muslims throughout his presidential campaign.

Clinton, however, was a known commodity, and she was expected to bring in seasoned Asia experts such as James Steinberg, former deputy secretary of state, and Kurt Campbell, former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. In contrast, Trump inspired fear and loathing among some allies and rivals alike, particularly because he remains a policy mystery to many, if not most Asian nations.

His anti-trade and anti-immigration rhetoric has put into question America’s commitment to the region. The fact that South Korea, a cornerstone of the American hubs-and-spokes military architecture in Asia, held an emergency national security meeting immediately after Trump’s victory says a lot about the strategic anxieties pervading the region. Japan, the linchpin of American hegemony in Asia, also fell into a similar state of dreadful anticipation.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who confidently prepared for a meeting with Clinton early next year, had to suddenly scramble to secure a meeting with the president-elect in order to decipher any potential seismic shift in American foreign policy.

Trump’s strongman persona and tough-talk seem to have also caught the attention of prickly allies like the Philippines. Rodrigo Duterte, the country’s controversial leader who has engaged in a series of tirades against America in recent months, immediately changed his tone once it became clear that Trump would be the 45th American president. In fact, in a series of speeches, Duterte went the extra mile to be on good terms with the incoming American leader, stating he doesn’t want to pick a quarrel with Trump and wished him luck and success.

While it is obviously too early to judge the merits of a Trump presidency, his status as a “known unknown” leader is expected to leave Asia in a state of suspense for months if not years to come. Amid growing geopolitical tensions and economic volatilities in the region, this is the last thing Asia needs at this point in time. Meanwhile, China wasted no time to regain the strategic initiative and present itself as a more reliable anchor of the regional order.

This was most evident during the recently-concluded Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, where President Barack Obama spent much of his time downplaying concerns with his successor, while Chinese President Xi Jinping presented his country as the new vanguard of globalization and trade. The Trump administration will have to allay concerns among allies, particularly on the future of free trade and freedom of navigation in the area, lest it risks losing the mantle of leadership (to China) for good.

American Leadership in Peril

Trump’s criticisms of free trade, for allegedly destroying American industrial base, and China, for alleged currency manipulation, have rankled Beijing. On multiple occasions, Trump promised to slap hefty tariffs on Chinese imports in order to close America’s trade deficit with the Asian juggernaut as well as to punish American companies relocating domestic jobs overseas.

But Beijing also senses some opportunity in Trump’s protectionist rhetoric, which may eventually become policy in one shape or the other. Trump’s pledge to nix the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) agreement on his first day in office has provided a unique opportunity for China to gain the upper hand.

The TPP is the cornerstone of the Obama administration’s economic pivot to Asia. Over the past decade, China has displaced both Japan and America as the biggest trading partner of almost all regional states, with the exception of the Philippines. In more recent years, China has also become a premiere source of infrastructure development and financing for developing Asia and Latin America.

The is precisely why the TPP, an ambitious mega-trading regime aimed at consolidating trade and investment flows among Asia-Pacific economies under America’s wing, is important. Without it, the economic foundation of U.S. leadership in the region comes under question.