The existing paradigm of U.S.-China relations was largely observed and analyzed in the context of "China's rise" (zhongguo de jueqi), where China's actions challenged American supremacy. The election of Trump, who is difficult to predict and has changed his campaign pledges as many as 141 times, may mean that Sino-American relations, from now on, are likely to be driven by U.S. variables rather than Chinese variables. The temptation by China's strategic community in seeing the politically inexperienced Trump as "an easy game" adds complications.
The direction of the relationship between the U.S. and China under Trump can be largely determined by the following three elements: the gap between Trump's words and actual policy, relational dynamics between Trump and his advisers and China's inevitable temptation to test Trump who has no political experience.
Many Chinese experts expect Trump will be more focused on domestic politics and therefore he won't spare much time in power competition with China or critiquing China's human rights issues. With Trump primarily minding his own business, China will be less under U.S. adult supervision and have more breathing room that may foster China's rise, their thinking goes. They expect the two sides will reach agreements more easily in areas of disagreements too.
Essentially, China sees Trump as someone with whom they can conduct business with and make a "deal" ― at least easier than with Hillary Clinton. There is a view in China that a "coarse merchant" (culu de shangren) is easier to deal with than a "hypocritical politician" (xuwei de zhengzhijia). Many Chinese scholars also argue that Trump's decision to designate China as a currency manipulator and slap a hefty 45 percent tariff on Chinese imports was simply a campaign message for American voters. A barking dog never bites, they say.
Taken together, China sees the Trump administration as a rare historic opportunity to promote the shift of power in U.S.-China relations. "China has finally got a chance to lead," a Chinese observer said.
Trump, however, may not turn out to be the pushover as China expects. Trump's political mentor, Peter Navarro, explains Trump's foreign policy this way. Trump took a very critical stance on Obama's "pivot to Asia" policy, not because it was done, but because it was done not strong enough. As a result, he argued, Obama incurred China's challenge to American supremacy.
The Trump camp accused Obama of "talking loudly but carrying a small stick" with China. In particular, Trump, who labeled Obama as the "worst president" during his presidential campaign, may try to differentiate himself from Obama during his first few months in office.
Trump emphasized he would "rebuild the military" and advocated for a "strong America" and "strong military," as part of his motto to "make America great again." Trump is renowned for changing his words, but it is worth noting that he has been highly consistent in his commitment to building a strong military.
Some argue Trump's view is aligned with the traditional Republican ideological orientation, especially Ronald Reagan's, to maintain "peace through strength." Trump himself also used this term in his Sept. 7 speech.
It would be however reasonable to believe that Trump's views reflect his own personal trait for venerating "power," rather than Republican values. It should be remembered that Trump used to be a Democrat. For instance, when the Chinese People's Liberation Army suppressed citizens during the 1989 Tiananmen Incident, Trump blurted a sense of inadequate awe when he said: "That showed you the power of strength." To North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, Trump also said Kim deserves "credit" for how he took over the country at such a young age.
It would be reasonable to analyze Trump as a person with a Machiavellian spirit who is vindictive about absolute and strong power, not based on ideology or that he is sympathizing with communism or dictatorship. He simply admires power and control. This also matches Trump's style of business negotiation. He is not an ideal sage who pursues a win-win, but a brutal realist who wants to be a winner who takes it all. Books based on the retrospective recollections by people who knew him also portray him as self-centered, with a strong desire to pursue his interests and control others rather than cooperate.
There is a view in China that Trump pursues "isolationism" and will be focused on the development of the country. If the U.S. intervention tendency in international conflicts such as the South China Sea is trimmed under Trump, this will naturally make room for China's expansion. However, the United States of Trump that admires "power" is still likely to continue the "unipolar supremacy strategy." Trump's vision is to make America so strong, that China will not even try to challenge the U.S.
An implication for South Korea is that Trump, who reveres power, is likely to continue the U.S. monolithic hegemonic strategy. The key to this strategy is to maintain a global military alliance and leverage the U.S. leadership by ratcheting up the alliances' burden-sharing costs. If that is the case, Trump's America is likely to maintain U.S. forces in South Korea yet ask for an increase in the maintenance costs.
Lee Seong-hyon, Ph.D., is a research fellow at the Sejong Institute. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org