We are not there yet. But a potential Clinton/Trump showdown for the Presidency of the United States might be shading all other comers at the moment. So its worth considering the angles of such a contingency on the United States most important 21st Century relationship. How would Beijing view this choice? And what sort of shift might either candidate precipitate? Actual serious policy proposals are thin on the ground at this point, but we can deduce a few interesting threads.
First to Clinton. Here we have a dearth of precedents. Clinton and China go way back. China’s first experience of her was as First Lady in 1995, when, in Beijing, she declared that “Women’s rights are human rights” at the Fourth World Conference on Women. Beijing bristled, and fired back. But Clinton was applauded at home. The latter part of the 1990’s was a period of optimism in the future of Sino-American relations, and Clinton’s experiences in Beijing imbued her with the basic premise that the US could positively shape Chinese behaviour on the world stage. Her firmness and forthright manner, in the face of sometimes histrionic Chinese protestations, can also be traced to these formative years. It should not be overlooked that Taiwan has just elected its first female President, while no woman has ever ascended to the CCP Politburo Standing Committee. Its hard to see a Chinese play here. Clinton can flagellate Beijing on gender all day long with relative impunity, as she did recently via Twitter.
As Secretary of State, Clinton frequented Asia. She was seen as both the public face and one of the architects of the US ‘pivot’. Clinton pushed hard to prioritize US interests and, more controversially, values, at every opportunity engaging with China. She was Secretary of State when the US first declared its interest in the peaceful resolution of territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Considered a warning to China about attempting to rule by force, it was resented as outside meddling in sovereign affairs. Perhaps reflecting Beijing’s relief, the China Daily offered a taught rebuke of Clinton’s time as Secretary upon her exit, while it was notably unrestrained in its praise of the incoming John Kerry. Clinton is apparently a deeply unpopular figure among Chinese intellectuals, netizens, and officials, though we should remain sceptical of such generalisations. As a primary candidate, Clinton’s most notable China-related position has been her shift from TPP backer to blocker. In sum, Clinton may be a derided, feared, even despised prospect as a Presidential candidate in Beijing’s eyes, should she become the Democratic candidate. But her history makes her a known entity.
So what about Trump? He has almost single-handedly altered the dynamics of domestic American politics with a mix of brashness, vulgarity, racism, sexism, and xenophobia (if I missed something just add your own). This affront to polite society is gradually being understood as one of the primary reasons for his front-runner status. He appears to have tapped a rich vein of support and may well go all the way to the candidacy, a prospect laughable not very long ago. In contrast to Clinton, the foreign policy locker is bare. Trump’s foreign policy has been accurately described as ‘not having one.’ I won’t subject you to a list of quotes from Trump on China because lets be serious folks, these are not policy positions. Trump’s maiden foreign policy speech was actually a speech about immigration. Despite rumours he is assembling a foreign policy advisory team, one has yet to materialise (if or when it does, who would take that job?) But Trump has gotten this far by ignoring every established requirement of a candidate for office. Why start now? How do you do anti-establishment when you become the establishment?
What might the net effect of all this be? Some have suggested a Trump doctrine (yep, they went there) might, by default, be some sort of bitter revisionist isolationism. The truth is… nobody knows. Probably not even Donald. But what if that’s the point? The last time the US tried to knock its competitors off balance with sheer inscrutability was with Nixon’s ‘Mad Man’ theory. They deliberately tried to convince leaders of other countries during the Cold War that Nixon was irrational and dangerous. This was supposed to engender caution, if not a little trepidation, in the minds of those leaders, a strategy that actually goes all the way back to Machiavelli. One of the factors, moreover, that has helped enable Beijing to pursue its strategy of ‘creeping assertiveness’ and an ‘expanded sense of diplomatic entitlement’ since 2008 has been the utter predictability it has enjoyed from the Obama administration. Recent moves in the South China Sea may have been rushed through before the Presidency changes hands at the end of the year.
Some have suggested Beijing fears Clinton a lot more than they do Trump. That a President Trump, all bombast and no strategy, would get nowhere with Beijing. I’m not quite so sure. Having a Mad Man in Washington could remove the certainty about American responses Beijing currently enjoys. This, if nothing else, would drive up debate within the Chinese polity about the appropriate strategy in the bilateral relationship, perhaps exacerbating factional seams that already exist. Its strategy of ‘creeping assertiveness’ depends heavily on a level of certainty about where the boundaries are. It can play ‘tit for tat’ because it knows fairly well what ‘tat’ will look like. Eviscerate those boundaries and there is nothing left to plan against. Would this lead to greater caution from the leadership in Beijing? Or would it set off a spiral of escalation that could very easily lead to conflict? And who really fears conflict more? Both have an enormous amount to lose economically. But in the cold world of military strategy, who controls the escalation ladder? Which side sits atop prima facie nuclear primacy?
Does this all sound really dangerous? Like some fundamental modicum of stability is in the process of eroding before our very eyes? That is because it is. Chomsky thinks the rise of Trump reflects nothing short of the breakdown of society. There is a powerful sense that a large chunk of ordinary Americans are fed up with a status quo in which US power is relied on yet reflexively lampooned. This is a legitimate grievance. But Trump is a massive over-reaction. American decline (myth or not) is being instrumentalized by a political opportunist. Like I said, we are not there yet. But Beijing will be ruminating on the strategic implications of a Clinton or a Trump White House. The Chinese are infamously methodical planners, a legacy of Mao era adherence to dialectical materialism. Perhaps, for them, and for us, the devil you know would be preferable to a real Mad Man in the White House.