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The Trump factor: The future of US-China relations

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The future of the United States’ engagement with the Asia-Pacific is at a critical juncture, particularly given the prospect of Donald Trump being re-elected as President. Despite currently facing legal challenges in the US Supreme Court over his eligibility to run, polls suggest he would likely triumph against incumbent President Joe Biden. That could mean a return to the hardline policies against China that characterized his first term in the White House.

Indeed, Trump’s “America First” mantra led to an intensified US-China trade war while adopting protectionist strategies to bolster US manufacturing. Not only did he impose tariffs on China, but regional countries like Japan, Australia, South Korea also felt the impact – particularly on goods like steel and aluminium. [1]

In tit-for-tat moves, China banned importing US agricultural products and imposed retaliatory tariffs. [2] The risk of a rivalry was arguably inevitable though, following China’s rapid economic growth to become the world’s second-largest economy. These evolving geopolitical dynamics have drawn chilling comparisons to historic rivalries, notably when the rising ancient city-state of Athens challenged the established order led by Sparta. And so far, China’s challenge to the US-led order has involved a naval expansion in the South and East China Seas, including near disputed islands with regional states, while it has established economic footholds across the Asia-Pacific.

Difference between Biden’s and Trump’s approaches

While designating China as a competitor, Trump has promised reverting to a stringent policy stance against Beijing. On February 6, while praising Chinese President Xi Jinping, he promised more “heavy tariffs” on China of up to %60 upon re-election. [3] Amidst the widely anticipated elections scheduled for November 2024, Trump certainly hasn’t shied from drumming up renewed rivalry with China. He even made the preposterous claim that China’s recent stock market downturn was a reaction to his win in the Iowa caucus. [4]

His approach could mark a shift from Biden’s more cautious approach of “strategic ambiguity,” which has entailed a measured containment strategy. Crucially, Trump has also pledged to rewrite some of Biden’s initiatives. While Trump withdrew from the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) for free trade between various global countries after becoming President, he said that Biden’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) will be “dead on day one.” [5]

That Biden-led framework with 13 regional countries, designed to provide a counterbalance to China’s economic influence, has successfully implemented agreements on supply chains and clean and transparent economies. However, it has still hit roadblocks over digital trade and labour commitments. Yet should Trump tear up that agreement, it may also cause friction within Washington’s partnerships with other nations.

Possible post-election scenarios

Going forward, Trump will likely still see the importance of the US-Japan partnership in countering China, even if disagreements occur over certain arrangements. He may also double-down on issues like supporting economic growth, energy cooperation and open economy initiatives across the region. Yet on the other hand, there are certainly fears of possible reprisals among regional governments should Trump adopt a more isolationist policy. [6]

That may include not seeking a fresh trade or security agreement with the G7 and regional economies that could counter China, while he may re-impose tariffs on steel or charge Japan and others more money to maintain the US military presence in that country. Although it may be premature to suggest an American retrenchment from the region, it could increase the costs of US security commitments with Asia-Pacific allies.

Ultimately, China will likely be a driving force behind Trump’s engagement with the region. Yet irrespective of the election’s outcome, neither Trump nor Biden appear to have a clear answer for engaging with Beijing. That absence of a strategy to de-escalate or diffuse tensions with China may not bode well in the long run, especially given the need to address issues like climate policy, economic security, and broader geopolitical stability. This concern was echoed by the late Henry Kissinger in 2023, who warned that both nations likely had “five to ten years to find a way” to manage their differences and cooperate. [7]

Although it may not yet be fully recognized within US policy circles, the importance of cooperation is paramount, as China and the US are also among each other’s most important economic partners. As time progresses, it remains essential to continue maintaining open and active lines of communication to ensure that tensions and sources of friction within their relations are managed.