There must have been a moment, in the first weeks after Chinese leaders learned that a TV star would be America’s next President, when the more optimistic among President Xi Jinping’s advisers pondered the upsides of a Trump Administration. Sure, Trump has few convictions, fewer principles, and no experience to speak of, but the ideological vacuum and his singular focus on isolationism might just play to China’s expansionist vision; his ignorance might even manifest itself as China’s greatest asset. Trump’s unprecedented (in certain respects, they were also “unpresidented”) missives over the past two weeks have likely upended such hopes. Instead, the President-elect has shown that his instinct is to turn the world’s significant bilateral relationships into frighteningly spectacular reality TV, even if doing so means the casual use of the most lethal gambits.
The first sign of trouble came with the President-elect’s phone call with the leader of Taiwan, a move that broke the diplomatic protocol that has served as the bedrock of Sino-American relations for four decades. Three days later, he told Fox News that he intended to use Taiwan as a bargaining chip, a statement that managed to alienate both Taiwan and China. “I don’t know why we have to be bound by a ‘One China’ policy,” Trump told Fox, “unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade.” Reckless as these words might seem, they fit perfectly with Trump’s core belief that his ingenuity as a deal-maker can more than make up for any deficit in knowledge or insight. A man who rejects daily intelligence briefings is not a man who cares for detail or due diligence.
In his business bible, “The Art of the Deal,” Trump declares, “My style of deal-making is quite simple and straightforward. I aim very high, and then I just keep pushing and pushing and pushing to get what I’m after. Sometimes I settle for less than I sought, but in most cases I still end up with what I want.” His ghostwriter has told Jane Mayer that Trump actually had very little to do with the writing of the book. Still, those words provide a notion of Trump’s self-image and, in conjunction with his Twitter tirades, a rough contour of his China strategy. Trump treats his own impulsive invectives as an admirable attack on political correctness. Alarmingly, he also doesn’t seem to have many other moves. For those who prayed that Trump’s Taiwan call would prove to be a tactical coup instead of a reckless blunder, his tweet last week about China’s seizure of a submersible drone only induced greater anxiety. “China steals United States Navy research drone in international waters – rips it out of water and takes it to China in unprecedented act,” Trump fired off. Then, after the Pentagon revealed the seizure and China confirmed that it would return the device, Trump leaped in again—in a manner akin to that of a child with gravy-smeared fingers interrupting adults at the dinner table—tweeting that “we should tell China that we don’t want the drone they stole back!”
If Trump’s method of conducting foreign policy seems dangerously unpredictable, his raison d’etre—to “make America great again”—aligns almost exactly with that of his counterpart, President Xi, who seeks to “rejuvenate” the Chinese nation to its former glory. For both leaders, what is at stake is not only international diplomacy but, perhaps just as important, the outward appearance of realizing their promise and defending their respective national images.
So far, Chinese leaders have by and large dismissed, as electioneering rhetoric, Trump’s accusation that China is a currency manipulator and his threat to start a trade war. China’s patience is wearing thin, however. In an editorial published in Global Times, an unapologetically nationalistic newspaper that often expresses the opinions of the state, Trump is described as “not behaving as a president who will become master of the White House.” The piece goes on to say, “He bears no sense of how to lead a superpower,” adding that “one thing for sure is that Trump has no leverages to maneuver the world.”
Trump’s style of improvised provocation suggests two very troubling scenarios. First, it is likely that, once in office, our deal-maker-in-chief will continue “pushing and pushing,” heedless of the particulars of any given situation or its details. Second, for a man who prides himself on his negotiation prowess, Trump seems completely unable to distinguish between a realistic goal and tossing aside a long-established nonnegotiable, angering the relevant parties and imperilling the status quo while gaining nothing in return.
Most important, for a man who consistently brags about his unfailing instincts, Trump’s bluster speaks to a dangerously misguided understanding of Sino-American relations. Since the start of his campaign, Trump has painted China as the dark villain: a thief of American jobs and a strongman archrival that must be vanquished. Yet the wave of nationalism washing over China derives its potency from an underlying sense of insecurity, inadequacy, and fear of manipulation by Western powers. After losing to Americans and Europeans during the Opium Wars, more than a century ago, and, as a result, being strong-armed into unequal trade treaties, China’s leaders are viscerally allergic to perceived bullying of any kind, especially at the hands of a Western superpower. And, while it is in the interest of both China and the U.S. to keep the peace, there are few sacrifices that China is likely to see as too great to avoid the perception of vulnerability.
One likes to think that our remarkably image-conscious, thin-skinned, and reactive President-elect will surround himself with advisers who will brief him on the potentially catastrophic results of playing chicken with China. But, of course, Trump already fancies himself a master of brinkmanship. “I always go into the deal anticipating the worst. If you plan for the worst—if you can live with the worst—the good will always take care of itself,” he declared in “The Art of the Deal.” Let’s hope that our President-elect heeds his book’s words—or at least brings in a reasonable ghostwriter for his next chapter on China.