Donald Trump's election potentially good and bad news for China

Beijing: The view from Beijing on the US presidential election could best have been described as a case of better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.

In Hillary Clinton, there was little affection but Beijing knew to expect more or less a continuation of the status quo. Her stint as secretary of state showed a consummately experienced and internationally respected operator, uncompromising in standing up to China on matters of trade, human rights and the South China Sea.

But President-elect Donald Trump is an altogether more unpredictable entity, providing economic threats yet also geopolitical opportunity.

Much depends on how much Mr Trump follows through on his rhetoric on the campaign trail, having promised to launch an “America-first” war on globalisation, the very means through which China has experienced its phenomenal economic rise of recent decades.

Mr Trump cast China as a currency manipulator and threatened to impose 45 per cent tariffs on Chinese imports to the US. He has also threatened to wind back President Barack Obama’s climate change pledges, which have been a rare highlight of US-China cooperation in a sea of strategic differences.

Conversely, Mr Trump is a vehement critic of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a regional trade deal which China has also long opposed.

And unlike Mrs Clinton, known for her hawkish tendencies, Mr Trump is unlikely to be as ideologically wedded to Washington’s strategic pivot to Asia and its leadership role in uniting – with mixed results – allies in the region against China’s military build-up in the South China Sea.

Mr Trump instead has raised the prospect of a reduced role for the US on the world stage, suggesting allies including South Korea, Japan and the Philippines should fend for themselves.

“Mr Trump is a businessman, he is pragmatic. If there’s no money in it, why would he committing more troops to the Asia Pacific? China will of course be happy about this,” Shen Dingli, a foreign policy expert at Shanghai’s Fudan University, said. “[From Beijing’s perspective] anything’s an improvement on Obama and Hillary.”

In an editorial on Thursday, the nationalistic tabloid Global Times said “the most uncertainty lies in Trump’s foreign policy”. “Trump campaigned heavily for a focused return to US economic interests, something that might threaten to turn Sino-US relations from a geopolitical rivalry to an economic conflict.

“But Trump may be more focused on interested in the new type of China-US relations than outgoing President Barack Obama, who was deeply influenced by Clinton. Trump may not be as strongly adverse to a ‘win-win’ scenario with China as the previous US political establishment.”

Most analysts in Beijing are sceptical Mr Trump’s tough talk on trade will translate to substantive action, at least not without triggering a global trade war. In guarded commentary thus far, China’s foreign ministry has insisted that bilateral trade has brought financial benefits and increased employment to the US.

“I don’t know if China’s leaders are fully aware of the dangers from this guy,” said Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. “He will probably damage [the] world economy and world liberal open and trade system by his economic protectionism and nationalism.

“If over time he keeps this disposition reflecting the angry will of American white ‘underdogs’ this will hurt the world economy very much and also hurt China’s economy at a time when China’s economy is weaker than ever before in the past 20 years.”

Even before Mr Trump’s win, Chinese media had exulted in how the ugly presidential race had showcased an “ill” America in decline, with the official People’s Daily concluding: “It certainly will not be viewed as a victory of democracy”.

The country’s state-controlled media outlets were instructed not to “hype” the election night vote count; coverage was relegated behind President Xi Jinping telephoning China’s Long March taikonauts​ in outer space. It is in keeping with Mr Xi’s increasingly assertive projection of China as a global power, its inexorable rise incapable of being affected by the trifling matter of a change of leadership in the US.

“Chinese leaders and the government and a large of part of Chinese public even further looks down upon the American mentality of political and social values – why anyone should believe in the essential values of American democracy?” Professor Shi said. “They feel even more confidence in China’s own model … It might make China even more assertive on the world stage.”