China has emerged as the biggest foreign winner in Donald J. Trump’s presidency.
Much of the American news media see Russia as the main overseas beneficiary of Donald J. Trump’s election. There are very good reasons for this. Trump’s strong criticisms of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) stand in sharp contrast to the NATO-friendly attitudes of all his presidential predecessors, who for almost 70 years have treated it as an indispensable bulwark against Russian expansionism in Europe and beyond. Trump also approved the return to Russia of the two diplomatic properties in the United States that the Obama administration seized from it as punishment for its interference in the U.S. 2016 presidential elections.
If circumstances allow, President Trump will almost certainly cancel the wide-ranging sanctions that Obama imposed following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. According to Michael Isikoff of Yahoo News, he already tried to do this in the early days of his presidency, but was prevented from implementing his plans by revelations in early February that then National Security adviser Michael Flynn had close ties to the Russian leadership.
But as much of a boon as Trump’s election has been for Russia, there is one other country that has done even better off his presidency. That is China, which has benefitted substantially from Trump’s unconscionable decision to systematically cede to it crucial economic and political advantage at the worst moment possible. This is the moment when as the established world power the United States should be doing everything it can to prevent its main global challenger from shunting it aside on the global stage. Unfortunately, however, it is doing just the opposite.
Taiwan of has a huge interest in the outcome of the U.S.-China competition. This reflects its heavy dependence on a robust American security and economic presence in the Asia-Pacific and beyond. As long as that presence remains intact, it can probably rest assured that China will move against it only in the most extreme of circumstances, such as a declaration of de jure independence. But if the presence were removed or otherwise diminished, China would likely find itself free to do as it wished whenever and wherever it wanted. This might include an invasion of Taiwan, or alternatively, the imposition of a crippling economic blockade.
It is probably not an exaggeration to say that had the Chinese leadership known just how valuable an asset Trump would be for them, they too might have adopted a Russian-style approach to cyber-generated meddling in the 2016 American presidential election.
Unfortunately for Taiwan, it is option No. 2 that is now gathering steam under Trump’s short-sighted presidency. Consider his actions in the following crucial areas, all of which have a hugely negative impact on the U.S.’ standing in the world.
- Trade: The Obama administration did it best to set the stage for a meaningful American pivot back to Asia following the costly Middle Eastern and southwest Asian obsession of president George W. Bush. The jewel in the crown of Obama’s effort was the development of the Trans Pacific partnership, an ambitious commercial compact that sought to deepen economic ties among 12 Pacific nations, and not coincidentally, push back against Chinese influence throughout the region. Unfortunately for Taiwan (which had long since evinced a keen interest in membership), Trump pulled the plug on it three days into his presidency, largely because he saw it as the kind of intrusive globalist structure he had criticized throughout his campaign. The main result of this decision was to cede Asian economic leadership to China and not coincidentally send an unmistakable signal to America’s allies in the region — particularly Japan and South Korea — that its once unshakable Asian commitment could no longer be counted on. This was underscored just last month when China conducted a glitzy unveiling of its own TPP alternative — the trillion dollar “One Belt-One-Road” initiative, which seeks to establish Beijing as the economic and geopolitical anchor for the world as a whole. Though one belt-one road is not without its problems, its prospects have been greatly enhanced by Trump’s conspicuous own-goal in shutting the TPP down. In retrospect, this may well have been the single worst decision of the entire Trump administration, which not to want to put too fine a point on it, is really saying something.
- Climate: Even before Trump’s decision in early June to pull the United States out of the Paris global climate pact, China was already advertising itself as the last best hope for bolstering global consciousness — thus, for example, Chinese President Xi Jinping publicly committed himself to leading the world globalization effort at the World Economic Summit in Davos, Switzerland in January. Now however, with the U.S. joining Syria and Nicaragua as the only countries to turn its back on the Paris deal, China’s position as a world globalization leader has been immeasurably strengthened. In the wake of the Paris decision, countries from Europe to Asia to Latin America and Africa have begun to look to Beijing as the undisputed world leader in the effort to rein in green gas emissions and reverse global warming. Even California Governor Jerry Brown recently travelled to Beijing to build support for carbon-cutting efforts. According to Carolyn Bartholomew, chairwoman of a bipartisan panel that advises the American Congress on China-related issues, Trump’s decision was a strong signal to countries around the world that China is the place to go for leadership on global economic issues. “They were doing this before Trump was elected,” she told an Associated Press reporter. “He’s just making it easier for them by pulling the U.S. back from the position of global responsibility.”
- Europe: For the entirety of the post-World War II period, the United States has been the rock on which western European security has been grounded. Whether by offering strong support for the process of European integration within the context of the European Union or by providing fundamental direction for NATO, the United States has stood shoulder to shoulder with its European allies whenever they needed it most. Not anymore though. As President Trump clearly showed during a recently concluded trip to the EU headquarters in Brussels and a G-7 meeting in Sicily, America’s European allies can no longer take American leadership for granted. According to German Chancellor Angela Merkel: “The times in which we can fully count on others are to a large extent over. We Europeans must really take our destiny into our own hands.” While this appeared to be a plea for enhanced European unity in the face of American indifference, it is also an indirect invitation to China to deepen its already substantial economic and political footprint on the European continent. This reflects most European countries’ strong disinclination to tighten ties with Russia (Italy may be an exception here) and China’s relative attractiveness as an economic and political partner.
- Political Systems: Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president represented a systemic breakdown of democracy in the United States. The democratic system — whether in its parliamentary or presidential forms — is supposed to prevent the selection of manifestly unqualified candidates to high leadership positions. Its failure to do so in America’s 2016 presidential election constituted a huge gift to Chinese propagandists, who for the past 10-15 years have been arguing that Communist Party-led autocracy — what supporters like Canadian scholar Daniel Bell call China’s meritocracy — is inherently superior to democracy. For many neutral observers Trump’s election seemed a clear validation of that view. At the very least it represented a huge setback for the democratic cause, particularly in those countries where democracy is still fighting for survival.
None of this is to say that the systematic diminution in American power presided over by Trump during the four inglorious months of his presidency is an irreversible phenomenon. A responsible presidential successor will still have the opportunity to return the U.S. to global leadership by recalibrating America’s wounded relationships with its traditional allies in Asia and Europe and by re-establishing American supremacy on crucial economic and political issues like global warming.
In the meantime though Trump is still president and his beneficent approach to the growth and cultivation of Chinese power worldwide still continues to thrive. It is probably not an exaggeration to say that had the Chinese leadership known just how valuable an asset Trump would be for them, they too might have adopted a Russian-style approach to cyber-generated meddling in the 2016 American presidential election. As it is however, they are clearly enjoying its fruits. For Taiwan and other countries that have long been dependent on strong and enduring American political and economic leadership the world over, this is a cause for concern. Trump’s Manchurian candidacy is the gift that keeps on giving to all the wrong people, especially the ones in Beijing.
Top photo courtesy of the official Donald J. Trump Facebook page.