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Donald Trump: The View From Bejing

Inaugural Fellow David Sandalow examines the perspective of China on President-elect Donald Trump in The Huffington Post. Read the full commentary here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-sandalow/donald-trump-the-view-fro_b…


The skies were clear as I arrived in Beijing last week. A quick check of the “Air Matters” app on my cell phone showed the air quality was roughly the same as in New York and Washington, D.C.

On my last trip, in October, I heard widespread support for Donald Trump from Chinese officials, business executives and academics. Many saw Secretary Clinton as too tough on China, due in part to her remarks on the South China Sea at an ASEAN meeting in 2010 and human rights at the Beijing Women’s Conference in 1995. They welcomed Mr. Trump’s comments questioning the United States’ defense commitment to Japan and Korea and saw his call for tariffs on Chinese goods as campaign rhetoric unlikely to become policy.

Reactions last week were more complicated. Almost everyone I spoke with sees President-elect Trump as a pragmatic businessman who will try to cut the best deal for his country. That engenders widespread respect.

But given that framework for understanding Mr. Trump, many Chinese find some of his recent behavior difficult to understand. They are increasingly preparing for a difficult period in which the new President and his team will need to learn what it means to govern and the realities of great power relations.

Mr. Trump’s early December phone call with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen elicited puzzlement and a certain amount of condescension. Some people viewed it as a rookie mistake engineered by a devious Ms. Tsai and her minions. But the dominant interpretation was that the call signaled an intent by Mr. Trump to make Taiwan policy a bargaining chip in commercial negotiations.

The notion this would work was seen as deeply naïve. Taiwan is seen as a fundamental core interest for the Chinese leadership. Disrupting longstanding approaches to Taiwan policy would undercut efforts to reach agreement on commercial matters, in the view of everyone I spoke with on the topic. Several people said Mr. Trump would de-emphasize Taiwan policy once he understands that, since his principal goal is commercial advantage for the U.S.

Yet Mr. Trump’s lack of experience is seen as a risk factor. One person said “If Mr. Trump announces irrational measures, China will have its own measures in response.”

Mr. Trump’s recent comments on Chinese currency were seen as detached from reality. In early December, the President-elect took to Twitter to criticize China for devaluing its currency. But at the same time the Chinese government was buying the yuan on foreign exchange markets to try to slow the rapid drop in its value – exactly the opposite of what Trump was charging. Several people I spoke with interpreted Mr. Trump’s comments as a legacy of prior currency disputes and asked whether someone they see as a savvy businessman could be uninformed about the current state of currency markets.

Mr. Trump’s statements on climate change were seen as bizarre. In a country often described as run by engineers, in which scientists are revered, ignoring science often doesn’t seem to compute. The puzzlement is especially deep since U.S. science and universities are so deeply respected in China. Several people seemed not to believe me when I reported that individuals who question the reality of climate change would occupy top positions in the U.S. government.

The future direction of U.S.-China relations was a frequent topic of conversation. The most widespread view was captured by Fu Ying, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress, who described US-China relations as a “deeply-rooted tree.” After more than four decades of steadily growing ties, the U.S. and Chinese economies are deeply intertwined. Presidents of both parties have expanded cooperation on a range of topics, even as serious disagreements flared on important issues. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese and Americans visit the other country each year. Almost everyone I spoke with thought that deep ties between the U.S. and China will continue.

Yet many believe the relationship could be in for rocky times. The most common cause cited was Mr. Trump’s lack of experience in foreign affairs. Many Chinese believe it will take time for Mr. Trump to understand ways in which international relations are different than real estate deals.

Several people I spoke with said the Chinese leadership would be patient during this period – to a point. They believe Chinese leaders showed restraint in response to the Tsai call, but will be firm in the months ahead to be sure the new President comes to understand China’s core interests. They expect commercial issues to dominate the relationship in the years ahead, with Mr. Trump pressing on issues including market access and anti-dumping.

The most complicated comments I heard were on China’s opportunity for global leadership. On issues including collective security, international trade and climate change, Mr. Trump’s campaign statements suggest the United States’ may withdraw from the world stage. The Chinese are keenly aware of this and evaluating whether and how China might step into the breach.

In recent years China has invested heavily in regional leadership with its “One Belt, One Road” initiative – a development and infrastructure initiative focused principally on Eurasia. But global leadership on the range of issues where the U.S. has led in the post-World War II era is more complicated. One Chinese official I spoke with said “We don’t have the resources to lead.” Another expressed concern about potential friction with the U.S. that would serve neither country.

Still, in January Chinese President Xi Jinping is headed to Davos for the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum. The trip offers an opportunity to share the Chinese vision of the emerging world order with the global elite who gather there. As the Davos meeting comes to a close, Donald Trump will be at the U.S. Capitol raising his right hand to become President of the United States.

On my last day in Beijing, an enormous cloud of smog approached the city. Pictures of the approaching haze spread quickly on cell phones, becoming a topic of conversation in each meeting I attended. By the time I left, the city was blanketed in a dark, smoky fog. The symbolism seemed obvious, but still I found myself hoping this wasn’t an omen for U.S.-China relations.



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Donald Trump: The View From Bejing