Five questions about Trump and China

Donald Trump.  / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN


Beijing was caught off guard this week by Donald Trump’s Twitter tirade against its currency, trade, and South China Sea policies.

Here are answers to some of the questions surrounding a potentially explosive relationship between the US president-elect and the world’s second largest economy.

– What’s the big deal? –
China detests unpredictability.

Its leaders have spent decades carefully constructing a relationship with the US where neither side is too critical of the other, despite their very obvious differences. Trump threw a curveball by speaking to the president of Taiwan over the weekend — and referring to her by her title. Beijing insists the island is a renegade province, not a country.

He then lobbed another firecracker with his outburst on Twitter in which he called out Chinese military expansionism, and accused China of fiddling its exchange rate.

While Trump made similar attacks on the campaign trail, many expected him to moderate his rhetoric post-election. The Twitter barrage seemed to have demolished those expectations.

– How has China reacted? –
Quietly, at least for now.

China’s foreign ministry repeatedly deflected or downplayed reporters’ questions Monday. But the shock seemed to wear off a little Tuesday, as state media trotted out attacks on Trump as a “diplomatic rookie”. However, most criticism appeared in English-language or overseas-focused media, suggesting the leadership is still weighing its domestic response.

– Can China hit back? –
Of course — it could make military or trade moves intended to cow Taiwan — but at the moment caution prevails.

On its front page, the state-run China Daily newspaper advocated a “wait-and-see approach”, while Chinese analysts have emphasised that the government’s options are limited because Trump has not yet taken office, and his stances could still soften.

– What is Trump up to? –
Much of the initial American reaction to Trump’s conversation with Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen assumed it was improvised or accidental.

Reports now suggest the call was long-planned by both sides. But whether Trump wants a wholesale change in US policy on Taiwan is still unclear.
Politics analyst Trey McArver said whoever’s idea it was, the call shows “the only thing that is certain is that we are in a period of deep uncertainty”.

– What comes next? –
All eyes in China — or at least in the Communist Party leadership — are on Trump’s picks for Secretary of State and ambassador to China.

On Tuesday, the billionaire businessman is scheduled to meet Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, who has personal ties to China’s president Xi Jinping and is reportedly a candidate to become the top US diplomat in Beijing. Such a choice would lighten the mood in the People’s Republic.

For Secretary of State, options range from John Bolton — perceived to be a hardliner on China — to Obama’s former ambassador to Beijing Jon Huntsman, who speaks Mandarin and has an adopted Chinese daughter.


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