Clinton or Trump: Who does China Want?

In Beijing’s eyes Clinton is no friend, but a Trump victory would open a new era of uncertainty, writes Vincent Ni

The World Today Published 27 September 2016 Updated 25 January 2019 3 minute READ

Joy Zhuang is well placed to judge how Chinese people might react to the next US president. She has been following the election campaign and writes a weekly column about Hillary Clinton for Globus, an international news project under Caixin Media. The topic of Clinton’s China policy is of immense interest to her readers, she says.

‘From the feedback I’ve received from my readers, they seem split on Trump, but generally quite hostile to Hillary Clinton,’ Zhuang told me. ‘They don’t accept Clinton as a female politician and think she is not friendly towards China at all.’

Clinton vs Trump
There’s a reason for such hostility. Clinton’s advocacy of female leadership in the West has irritated many in China in the past two decades. In 1995, she declared in Beijing that ‘women’s rights are human rights; human rights are women’s rights’, which was quickly censored at the time. And in 2010, her reiteration of the US’s right to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea provoked lingering anger in China.

Even after she stepped down as President Obama’s Secretary of State in 2013, she continued to cause controversy. For instance, when President Xi Jinping co-hosted a UN meeting on women’s rights last September, five months after five feminist activists were released on bail, she reacted on her Twitter account with one word: ‘shameless’.

In response to this remark, the Communist Party tabloid, The Global Times, claimed the Chinese people ‘despise her a little’. ‘It looks like Hillary is in a panicked frenzy, her eyes have turned red… She has started to copy Trump’s speaking style and allowed herself to become a fierce big mouth,’ it wrote in a Chinese-language editorial.

By contrast, although Donald Trump has also used extreme words (such as accusing China of ‘raping’ the US in trade) and has vowed to impose 45 per cent tax on Chinese imported goods, his threat to scale back US protection to its allies if they don’t pay more might be more welcome in Beijing, said Sun Yun, a Chinese researcher at the Stimson Centre think tank in Washington D.C.

‘On a geopolitical level, if American allies in the region, namely Japan and South Korea, refuse to shoulder more financial responsibility for US military protection, it might provide China with a strategic opportunity to expand in the region.’

And Trump as US president could also give the Communist Party a morale boost, Sun said. ‘On a domestic level, Trump’s controversial rise might reaffirm Communist Party leaders’ belief that China’s cadre selection process has more merit… it’s at least good for domestic propaganda.’

In fact, Beijing has already started the campaign to discredit this election. In an August 28 op-ed on the official Xinhua News Agency, the commentator Xu Changyin lamented: ‘this kind of vulgar and hypocritical American electoral democracy is the misfortune of modern civilized society.’

Beijing’s diplomats are cautious about offering remarks on this election, but Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador to London said in July: ‘I read some Western media report saying that China might be concerned about the Trump administration. I’m not that worried… I think I understand American election politics.’

There is still a danger, however, that Trump’s Asia policy might backfire. According to Sun Yun, if US slashes its military assistance to its regional allies, this might prompt a nuclear competition in the region as both Tokyo and Seoul seek to strengthen themselves. ‘This might still worry China,’ she told me.

Clinton still wedded to pivot
But if Clinton wins in November, what will her China policy look like in 2017?

Trump may have vowed to alter the US’s ‘Pivot to Asia’, the key policy initiative of Clinton’s term as secretary of state under which Washington is refocusing foreign and security policy on East Asia. This rankles Beijing, where it is viewed as a means of containing China’s rise in the region.

But among policymakers close to Clinton it is regarded as the cornerstone of future Asia policy.

Clinton’s policy adviser Laura Rosenberger told me in July that the pivot will continue in the Clinton administration, and that China is still at the centre of it. ‘As president, she [Clinton] would absolutely figure out ways to build on what’s been done over the past eight years,’ she said.

‘We will continue to deepen our alliances, build new strategic partnerships, and make sure that we are doing what we need to manage China’s rise, which is complex and is one of the most consequential [relations for the US].’

This pivot would also include other countries around China, including America’s former antagonist Vietnam. In March, the Obama administration lifted its arms embargo to the Communist state, which had also loudly backed the right of the Philippines to take the South China Sea dispute against China to a United Nations tribunal.

Continuity or disarray
‘From what she has done in the past, Hillary Clinton would certainly be a tough US president for China to deal with,’ says Ren Xiao, a former Chinese diplomat who teaches at Shanghai’s Fudan University.

‘On the other hand, after four decades of turbulence, Sino-US relations are quite resilient nowadays. The modus operandi might change when Clinton becomes the US president, but the direction will not be altered.’ In other words, although Ren thinks Clinton might be tough towards China, her policies will also not surprise Beijing too much.

‘By comparison, if Trump were elected, his policies would deviate dramatically from the current administration. He will leave the US’s domestic and foreign policies in disarray.’ Ren added.

‘If I were America’s enemy, I would hope Trump is elected, and see him make US’s relations with its allies in Asia a mess; but if I were America’s friend, I would think that Hillary would be a better president.’

But clearly, neither Trump nor Clinton treats China as their friend in this campaign. In her nomination speech in Philadelphia, Clinton told the packed auditorium: ‘If you believe that we should say no to unfair trade deals… that we should stand up to China… that we should support our steelworkers and autoworkers and home-grown manufacturers… join us.’

As tens of thousands in her audience cheered at the Wells Fargo Centre in South Philadelphia, Chinese journalists and diplomatic delegates swiftly took notes. They were listening carefully.

Joy Zhuang, however, says that there would be a reason to celebrate Clinton’s success. ‘At least she’s the first female candidate to be nominated by a major political party. No matter what happens in November and whatever her China policy would be, it’s a historic moment for young female professionals like me.’