Uncertainty in China as Trump Takes Office

The future of Sino-American relations could hinge on how the new president treats Europe and Russia.

Guangzhou China
Guangzhou, China at night, September 16, 2013 (Johnas)

This weekend, more than a billion Chinese will gather with their families to celebrate the Chinese New Year and the Year of the Rooster. It is a lively tradition, the biggest family celebration in the year and, like New Year’s Eve in the West, it breathes the magic of the new.

But with the inauguration of the new American president, Donald Trump, it is even more unpredictable what this new year will bring.

Bumpy ride ahead

The Chinese ought to brace themselves for an economic confrontation. They are the main targets of Trump’s “America First” policy.

Other exporting nations, like Germany and Japan, may also be on Trump’s radar. But they are long-standing American allies whereas Trump considers China a rival.

Propelled by nationalistic sentiments on both sides and spiced with a small military incident — there has been no shortage of clashes in recent years — an economic tit-for-tat could quickly spiral out of control and do serious damage to the Sino-American relationship.

Strange bedfellows

Trump takes a completely different approach to Russia. Contrary to his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, President Trump is determined to improve relations between Russia and the West, including in the economic sphere.

The extent of Trump’s pro-Russian policy remains to be seen, but any rapprochement would weaken China’s bargaining clout in respect to the formerly isolated Russia.

Improvements in American-Russian trade regulations for raw materials, for example, could have a direct impact on Chinese imports from Russia.

Trump may seek to ease and eventually lift the economic sanctions on Russia, which would boost trade between Europe and Russia — again, to China’s detriment.

In an extreme scenario, China would find itself excluded from a new power triangle between America, Europe and Russia.

Or the outcome will be completely different

International relations are affected by so many interdependent actors and factors that there are always several possible outcomes.

The above scenario would follow the logic of economics guiding politics and the EU bandwagoning with American foreign policy.

It could be different this time.

Donald Trump’s isolationism could weaken the transatlantic relationship. A protectionist America could prompt the EU to retaliate and aggressively seek out new partners and markets, including China. An EU-Russia-China triangle could emerge instead, centered around Beijing’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative and leaving the United States out.

The world is unlikely to change so dramatically in a single year, but it could well be we will one day look back on this Year of the Rooster as the start of a new era.