As it was becoming clear that Donald Trump was going to win the U.S. presidential election, South Korea's presidential office convened a National Security Council (NSC) meeting. South Korea usually does so when there is a North Korean provocation such as a nuclear device detonation. Even though the move was intended to assess the impact of the U.S. presidential election on South Korea, it may have also sent out an unintended signal that South Korea perceives Donald Trump, the incoming U.S. president, as a "threat."
To be fair, Trump earned this. He threatened to pull out U.S. forces if South Korea does not pay "very substantially." South Korea has been under the U.S. umbrella against North Korea's nuclear and missile threats. The U.S. is South Korea's major military ally. So, Trump's remark triggered South Koreans' fear response nerve. He also said he would renegotiate the free trade agreement with South Korea once he got elected, unsettling South Korea's business community. It was then understandable why only 7 percent of South Koreans supported the Trump presidency over the Clinton presidency ― the lowest rating among the six Asian countries that also included China, Indonesia, Japan, Singapore, and the Philippines, according to a survey conducted by the South China Morning Post.
The picture is quite different in China. There is something interesting and odd about China's infatuation with Trump. Even though the Chinese leadership and the Chinese state-controlled media didn't show any public display of preference for either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, the Chinese public in general showed unusual affinity and optimism for Trump.
In fact, in the above survey, the Chinese public's support for Trump was the highest among Asian countries, at 39 percent. Chinese people also showed the least support (61 percent) for Clinton. So, why the fancy?
First, Chinese people have been uncomfortable with Clinton who displayed a more principled posture in terms of human rights, freedom and democracy. Trump, on the other hand, sounded quite "business-like" on these value items. For instance, in a 1990 interview with Playboy, Trump called the 1989 Tiananmen democracy uprising a "riot" and the Chinese government "put it down with strength." Trump sounded like he admired the Chinese government's showing "the power of strength," as he put it.
His comments didn't go down well even with his Republican colleagues. But they were remembered in China. Trump is seen in China as able to put aside Western ideological baggage, conduct serious business and clinch a lucrative deal. China seems to admire his practicality.
Second, China thinks all the "China bashing" comments Trump made on the presidential candidate trail were simply a "business talk" strategy to win the presidential ticket. Once sworn in, Trump as president can afford to forget about them and seek business opportunities with China, the interpretation went. China has reason to believe so. And unfortunately, Hillary Clinton's husband, Bill Clinton, set a bad example. As a presidential candidate, Bill Clinton harshly criticized China's human rights conditions and lack of freedom of the press. But once elected, he reversed his campaign pledge and awarded China "most favored nation" (MFN) status. Furthermore, he later renewed it. No wonder China feels optimistic with Trump this time as well.
Third, China appreciates Trump's "non-interventionist" approach to international affairs. That is interpreted in China that President Trump may decouple with Obama's "rebalancing" strategy, which has been the main American policy tool to contain China in Asia. As Trump mainly minds his own "America first" business and housekeeping items such as building walls along the American borders, he is less likely to pay attention to the South China Sea, Taiwan and the American military alliance structure in East Asia with South Korea and Japan.
After all, as Chinese people say, a bad American businessman (Donald Trump) is easier to deal with than a bad American politician (Hillary Clinton). They believe Trump as president will continue to carry the DNA as a businessman who is up for a deal. And Trump as U.S. president will be practical enough to primarily focus on enriching economic and trade relations with China, while being less ideologically confrontational in the values the previous American administrations have traditionally underscored.
Anticipating the Trump presidency, Stanford's Francis Fukuyama penned in the Financial Times: "A Trump presidency will signal the end of an era in which America symbolized democracy. More broadly, a Trump presidency will signal the end of an era in which America symbolized democracy itself to people living under corrupt authoritarian governments around the world."
Fukuyama didn't name China by name. But the implication was all there in the context.
Fittingly enough, the "end" of the American era heralds the start of the Chinese era. Ironically, the ball is in the Chinese court to prove Fukuyama is wrong. Chinese interlocutors often tell foreign China observers they should not underestimate "the rational decision-making capacity of the Chinese leadership."
As much as China cherishes the Trump presidency, as much as China attaches great importance to its reclaimed global leadership status, as much as China claims itself as a "responsible power" and as much as it asserts that its leadership makes "rational" decisions, the burden is on China to prove it can also deliver global public goods and values and norms that can be respected by other nations. In the past, America commanded respect in these areas. This is how China can best make use of Trump, by showing China that excels where America has been traditionally strong.
Lee Seong-hyon, Ph.D., is a research fellow at the Sejong Institute. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.