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Why China has reason to wish for a Trump presidency in 2024

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 07/01/2022
Illustration: Craig Stephens Illustration: Craig Stephens

When Donald Trump's supporters stormed the Capitol a year ago, it was hard to imagine him ever returning to the White House. But with under three years left before the 2024 US presidential election and with Joe Biden and Trump running neck-and-neck in the polls, it is time to ponder the implications of such a scenario, especially for US-China relations.

If Trump were to run and win, he would be limited by the constitution to one term. Not having to seek re-election would free him from the political pressures typically haunting first-term presidents. This could also make him even more unconventional than he was in his first term.

In addition, he would be likely to enjoy Republican control of either one or both chambers of Congress, which would give him more power than he had when he left office. When Trump was elected in 2016, Republicans controlled both the Senate and the House but large swathes of the party rejected him.

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Since then, he has gradually taken over the party and marginalised establishment Republicans. By 2024, the GOP will be solidly behind him. As second-term president, he would have more political power than he has ever had.

People gather ahead of an appearance by former president Donald Trump at a rally at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines, Iowa, on October 9 last year. In a Morning Consult/Politico poll last December, more voters said they'd like to see Trump run in 2024 than incumbent Joe Biden. Photo: AP © Provided by South China Morning Post People gather ahead of an appearance by former president Donald Trump at a rally at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines, Iowa, on October 9 last year. In a Morning Consult/Politico poll last December, more voters said they'd like to see Trump run in 2024 than incumbent Joe Biden. Photo: AP

By January 2025, the pandemic may be under control but the fallout of years of economic carnage, bloated national debt and biting inflation will be felt everywhere. Trump would run on the promise of returning the economic miracle of his first term - "Make America Great Again, Again" - restoring law and order and undoing Biden's progressive policies.

His second term would not only be a vindication tour but also a vindictive one. Trump would want to hold to account all of those Washington power centres that tormented him in his first term - the media, the intelligence community, and big tech companies which deplatformed him and his allies. The knifing would be relentless.

What does this mean for US-China relations? In his second term, Trump would not be softer on China than he was in the first. He would reward those who were loyal to him, especially in the dark days after he lost the election in November 2020, all of them China hawks.

Think Governor Ron DeSantis as vice-president, Peter Navarro as secretary of commerce, Mike Pompeo back in the State Department, Senator Tom Cotton at the Pentagon and Matt Pottinger as national security adviser. For China, such line-up may look ominous but this may not necessarily be the case.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signs a Trump hat for a supporter as DeSantis greets the audience after a press conference in Oldsmar, Florida, on December 7. Photo: Tampa Bay Times / TNS © Provided by South China Morning Post Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signs a Trump hat for a supporter as DeSantis greets the audience after a press conference in Oldsmar, Florida, on December 7. Photo: Tampa Bay Times / TNS

Trump's tough talk and his penchant for hyperbole would be back on full display, and China would not be spared. But so would his disdain of America's alliance system, his disinterest in democracy promotion, human rights and climate change and, most important, his general aversion to new wars.

These could offer a real opportunity for detente in US-China relations. By 2025, America's diplomatic quiver of arrows fired at China will have been emptied.

At the current rate of anti-China legislation initiated by Congress, there will soon be few Chinese companies left to blacklist, few Chinese products to impose tariffs on, and few unrealised ideas left on how to cripple the Belt and Road Initiative and China's technology ascendance.

America's China policy is based on an imaginary enemy

By the time Trump entered office, America would have been disabused of the notion that China could somehow be prevented from becoming the world's largest economy as well as a global leader in some of the most important technologies of the 21st century. If America is to be great again, it can only be so by lifting itself up, rather than pulling China down.

So what would Trump do? On the military front, while investing considerable resources in upgrading US capabilities, particularly in the space, cyber and nuclear domains, Trump would be deeply suspicious of his generals and spy agencies, taking their warnings about China's aggression with a pinch of salt.

He would be reluctant to be dragged into military adventures in the Indo-Pacific unless America was attacked first. He would maintain strategic ambiguity about US commitment to defend Taiwan if attacked.

Trump has no illusions about Taiwan. "We are 8,000 miles away. If they invade, there isn't a f****ing thing we can do about it," he reportedly said in 2019. Asked what he might do, he would resort to his favourite answer: "We'll see what happens."

On the economic front, Trump would be expected to break from Biden's aversion to trade deals. He would want to revive the phase-one trade deal he signed just days before he left office and continue from where he left off on phase-two issues, not before negotiating free trade agreements with India and Japan to strengthen his hand in the negotiations with Beijing.

He would also revive his US "energy dominance" doctrine that emphasises the expansion of US energy exports to, among other places, China.

Finally, he would be much more eager than Biden to engage with President Xi Jinping on a personal level. In a December interview, Trump said: "I really believe he liked me, I like him." Such a personal touch is very much needed to calm things down.

For all his peculiarities, Trump offers the possibility of discontinuity in US-China relations - which is exactly what is needed today. Staying on the current trajectory will only lead to more tension until, at some point, one of the guardrails that keeps the powers from veering into conflict will snap, paving the road to an armed conflict.

If Trump could this, he would be one of America's most consequential presidents.

Gal Luft is co-director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security

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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

Copyright (c) 2022. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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