Head, US and the Americas Programme; Dean, The Queen Elizabeth II Academy for Leadership in International Affairs

While Hillary Clinton’s China policy would largely be a continuation of existing policy, Trump is harder to predict but would be far less likely to act based on the interests of US allies in Asia.

A woman takes part in a rally welcoming China's president Xi Jinping during the nuclear security summit in Washington DC on 1 April 2016. Photo: ANDREW BIRAJ/AFP/Getty Images.A woman takes part in a rally welcoming China's president Xi Jinping during the nuclear security summit in Washington DC on 1 April 2016. Photo: Getty Images.

Summary

  • One of the most significant relationships that the next US president will have to manage is that with China. In the seven years since President Barack Obama took office, China’s global influence has expanded significantly. Given the country’s recent economic turmoil, however, its continued rise is more uncertain.
  • The US–China relationship has significant areas of possible collaboration – from countering piracy and addressing environmental issues, to fighting Islamic extremism and dealing with North Korea. However, competition and conflict between the two countries could put such collaboration at risk.
  • Hillary Clinton’s China policy would be the most predictable of the presidential candidates and largely in line with that pursued by President Obama – one that is more collaborative than conflictual. Her strong record of involvement with Asia as well as her hawkish perspective, however, would likely make Clinton more receptive to the interests of US allies in the region; and thus more assertive in pushing back against perceived Chinese muscle-flexing in the traditional security environment and in the cyber sphere.
  • Donald Trump’s China policy would likely be driven more by economic goals (in terms of opportunities for engagement as well as tough responses to perceived Chinese unfair practices, such as cyber espionage or currency manipulation) than by security concerns. Trump would be far less likely to act based on the interests of US allies in Asia. However, his more extreme positions would be tempered by Congress, centrist advisers and government bureaucracy.
  • The US–China relationship under a President Bernie Sanders would likely be a dysfunctional one given his focus on domestic issues of inequality. With regard to China, his priorities would be to mitigate the impact it has on jobs and wages in the United States, and to focus on its human-rights abuses. Collaboration on other issues would thus likely slow to a trickle.