A Vote for Trump Is a Vote for China

Experts argue that Trump’s proposed policies toward China would only work to damage U.S. interests and make Beijing stronger.

<> on March 30, 2016 in De Pere, Wisconsin.
<> on March 30, 2016 in De Pere, Wisconsin.

Of the many satirical nicknames Donald Trump has been called in his quest for the presidency, the one that, ironically, may contain the most truth comes from the China Press, a Chinese-language newspaper based in the United States. A March 28 article refers to the Republican front-runner as “China’s secret agent in America.” Why? Because Trump’s plans to protect U.S. interests actually benefit China more.

Trump has made China-bashing a fixture of his campaign: Railing about “currency manipulation” and “stealing” U.S. jobs are stump-speech fixtures. But regional experts say that because of Trump’s denigration of the U.S. relationship with Japan, his acceptance of Chinese human rights abuses, and his isolationism, a Trump presidency would strengthen both the ruling Chinese Communist Party and China’s place in the world.

For decades, Trump has argued for a colder relationship with Japan, the world’s third-largest economy. Besides close trade ties — Japan is the United States’ fourth-largest trading partner, behind Canada, Mexico, and China — Japan also plays an important role in U.S. foreign policy as the lynchpin of U.S. security strategy in Asia. The country hosts more than 50,000 U.S. troops, which serve as a massive deterrent for Chinese and North Korean adventurism in the region. (U.S. ally South Korea also hosts nearly 30,000 U.S. troops, which serve a similar purpose.) In a March 25 interview with the New York Times, Trump reiterated his long-held ideas about the region: that the United States should consider withdrawing its troops if Japan and South Korea don’t pay more for their upkeep and that the United States should rethink its security alliance with Japan, because Washington is obligated to defend Tokyo if it’s attacked — and not the reverse.

Forget for a moment that Japan already pays just under $2 billion annually toward the U.S. troops’ upkeep or that there would be a massive uproar in Japan if Prime Minister Shinzo Abe tried to amend the constitution so that his country was required to defend the United States. Abe faced large protests last fall for a much more minor constitutional change on Tokyo’s long-standing defensive posture. Consider instead the signal that Trump’s comments send to China — a country that has long bristled at U.S. troops in East Asia, a region that it considers its sphere of influence.

Removing some or all U.S. troops from Japan and South Korea and weakening the security alliance would reduce the stature of the United States in the region and “satisfy Chinese aims,” said Ryo Sahashi, an associate professor of international relations at Kanagawa University in Yokohama, Japan. Among the many consequences, it would strongly reduce Washington’s ability to talk Beijing down from its aggressive island-building in contested regions of the nearby South China Sea. “China would be laughing loudly” if Trump downgraded the alliance, said a Japanese diplomat, who asked to speak anonymously. And a Trump victory would mean that “China would do whatever it wants” in the region, Tsuneo Watanabe, the policy research director at the Tokyo Foundation, told the Japan Times.

Trump also seems unwilling to push Beijing on its human rights violations. He is probably the only U.S. presidential candidate in history to have publicly applauded Beijing’s massacre of protestors in June 1989 following pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square. “When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it,” he said, in a 1990 interview with Playboy. “Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength.” Pressed to explain during the March 10 Republican presidential debate, Trump said he wasn’t “endorsing” Beijing’s behavior but called the demonstrations a “riot” — mirroring the language that the Communist Party used to tar the peaceful Tiananmen protests. After the debate, Wang Dan, a student leader during the 1989 protests, wrote that Trump “is already qualified to become a member” of the Communist Party. Some human rights advocates believe that Trump would be an easy target for Chinese critics. “An ignorant and intolerant leader like Trump, who appeals to violence and racism, would benefit the Chinese leaders by providing political fodder for their accusations that the U.S. is hypocritical and racist and violates human rights,” said Sharon Hom, the executive director of Human Rights in China.

While Trump’s unwillingness to criticize Beijing’s human rights abuses could burnish the party’s reputation domestically, some worry his desire to untangle the United States from some prominent international organizations could create a power vacuum that China may decide to fill. In a recent speech, Trump criticized what he called the “utter weakness and incompetence of the United Nations” and claimed that the international body is “not a friend of democracy; it’s not a friend to freedom. It’s not a friend even to the United States of America.” And in an early April speech, Trump implied that he wanted a smaller United Nations and wondered out loud, “Do they ever settle anything?” (U.N. diplomats are so worried about a Trump presidency that they’ve started to rush through deals, in the hope of getting them signed before Obama leaves office in January 2017.) Chinese President Xi Jinping, on the other hand, wants to work more closely with the international body. In his maiden speech to the United Nations in September 2015, Xi pledged $1 billion to a new U.N. peace and development fund — money that would go much further toward influence if the United States walked away from its U.N. commitments.

What about Trump’s meaty-sounding calls to punish Beijing for its trade practices by slapping a 45 percent tariff on exports from China? It would hurt the United States more than China: Brandeis University economist Peter Petri estimates that Trump’s plan to slap a 45 percent tariff on exports from China could cause the U.S total merchandise trade deficit to grow by $67 billion. The trade war that could result “would likely affect U.S. interest rates and securities markets, leading to far more losses than would be gained by the supposed protection provided by the higher tariffs,” said Scott Kennedy, an expert on China’s economy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

While Trump’s sanctions would certainly hurt China as well, reliance on exports is no longer China’s major strategy for growing its economy — instead, Beijing is becoming more dependent on domestic consumption, investment, and government spending, said Kennedy. Trade as a percentage of China’s GDP has dropped from 65 percent in 2006 to 42 percent in 2014, according to the World Bank. By making exports to the United States far less attractive, Trump would in effect be pushing China to build a more sustainable economy.

Like Trump, Xi loves to talk about the idea of national revival — he calls his version the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” It’s doubly ironic, then, that the two men might serve at the same time, in their own way, working to make China great again.

Photo Credit: SCOTT OLSEN/Getty Images

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Twitter: @isaacstonefish