Trump's Unpredictable Position on US-Chinese Relations

Trump's Unpredictable Position on US-Chinese Relations

             Donald Trump has been President-elect for just over a month, and already the world is wondering what the future holds for US-China relations. While on the campaign trail, Trump voiced his dislike of free trade and his desire to bring the production of goods outsourced in China back to the US as part of his “Make America Great” crusade. He also pledged to enforce an absurdly high tariff of 45% on Chinese products, as an incentive to bring production back to the US.  This inflammatory rhetoric seems to suggest that the United States is headed for an anti-globalization and isolationist policy for the next four years. However, during the first two weeks of December, two curious things have led some to question what to expect.

            The first was a phone call between Trump and Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen on December 2nd, a conversation that had government officials in Beijing up in arms because Washington has been exclusively diplomatic with Beijing since the late 1970’s.  The second was Trump’s appointment of Iowa Governor Terry Branstad as the new US ambassador to China. For years, China has been purchasing pork and soybeans from Iowa, which has resulted in a positive relationship between Branstad and China. However, Branstad, who is known to call the president of China Xi Jinping “an old friend,” will undoubtedly find himself in an awkward position because Trump repeatedly bashed China during his campaign. 

            Publically, the Chinese are keeping their political cards close to their chest.  A spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Lu Kang, said, “We would welcome [Trump] playing a bigger role in promoting Sino-American relations.” Beijing’s statement indicates that, for the moment, the city has decided to adopt a wait-and-see attitude to learn if President Trump is less inflammatory than Trump the candidate.

            This leaves the world with one big multi-billion dollar question: what do Trump’s two extremely contradictory actions—made just a few days apart—mean for future relations between the US and China? There are three possible scenarios. The first, based on the phone call to Taiwan and Trump’s clear dissatisfaction with US-China relations, is that the Trump administration’s new foreign policy will entail Washington-forming diplomatic relations with Taiwan, and abolishing the ones with Beijing—which  without a doubt, would have an enormous impact on both the US and China’s economies. And, if the US did decide to sever its diplomatic ties with Beijing, the decades-long relationship between the two countries would not continue on even a remotely amicable basis. A full-fledged trade war would turn the clock back to the 1960’s.

            The second possibility is that by appointing Branstad, the relationship between the US and China will improve.  Perhaps someone who actually understands foreign policy advised Trump to abandon his polarizing anti-globalization and isolationist beliefs in favor of strengthening America’s relationship with China. Perhaps there was no ulterior motive when Trump spoke to President Tsai Ing-wen beyond the pleasantries exchanged in a congratulatory phone call.  After all, Trump clearly loves to be congratulated, as illustrated by his recent self-indulgent  “thank you” tour for his most ardent supporters across the country. Due to the newly-appointed Ambassador’s long history of good relations with the Chinese, Trump may have appointed Branstad with the hope of actually ushering in a new era of even better co-operation between our two countries while simultaneously strengthening our relationship with Taiwan.  Of course, if that is the plan, it will be an extremely delicate diplomatic balancing act.

            The third, and most plausible, situation is unknown. If there is one thing Trump has proved so far, it is that he is a loose cannon when it comes to what he says; he has no problem changing his views, often within the same day. Maybe Trump will sever ties with Beijing and form new ones with Taiwan. Or perhaps Branstad’s appointment as Ambassador will directly improve US-China relations. Trump’s contradictory rhetoric during his campaign could turn out to have been a Machiavellian plan to get elected first and figure out what to do later.

            Unfortunately, the most likely scenario is that we do not know what is going to happen. It could be one of the situations described above, or it could be something that nobody saw coming.  For the time being, the world will just have to sit back and wait until Trump officially takes office in 2017 to see if he is crazy like a fox…or just plain crazy.

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