U.S.–China Week: Hillary Clinton for a strong U.S.–China relationship (2016.11.07)

Welcome to issue 76 of U.S.–China Week.

Since its inception, I have strictly limited the subject matter of U.S.–China Week to bilateral and regional affairs, not the domestic politics of China or the United States. Accordingly, coverage of the U.S. election has been occasional and restricted to the candidates’ attitudes and likely approaches to policy regarding China and the Asia-Pacific region. Undeniably, however, the U.S. election is the most important story in U.S.–China relations this week. It must be addressed.

Another guiding principle for U.S.–China Week has been to maintain analytical distance and apply equal-opportunity skepticism to all political sides, every government statement, and even the best reporting and analysis. So although no one who knows me would have trouble discerning my political leanings, in this context I find much to praise and much to criticize from both Democrats and Republicans. Today, however, it is impossible to honestly assess U.S.–China relations without remarking on the two drastically different paths bilateral ties might take depending on the outcome of tomorrow’s election.

For those favoring a U.S.–China relationship that better serves the citizens of both countries and people everywhere, Hillary Clinton is the only choice for president of the United States.

The case against Donald Trump is stark. Some U.S. observers have proposed that a Trump presidency could put the U.S. in a stronger negotiating position through aggressive trade tactics or his supposed deal-making acumen. But Trump’s vague plans for trade barriers are not only potentially impossible but also would be met with a strong and likely very damaging Chinese response. Both countries would suffer.

Some Chinese observers have suggested that Trump would be easier to deal with—because he is a Republican and Democrats have caused trouble over human rights; because he might be less motivated to engage in Asia-Pacific regional struggles; or because he would throw the United States and its alliances into crisis and allow China’s power to grow. In reality: Trump is not recognizable as a Republican of the model imagined by Chinese observers thinking of presidents since Nixon; a Trump administration’s military policies are entirely unpredictable, since he has no record and his team is a mystery; and a pull-back from U.S. alliance commitments would result in a far less stable region where Japan, South Korea, and others may seek stronger independent military capabilities. Any growth of relative Chinese capability could cause destabilizing insecurity in several neighboring states.

Many Trump supporters share a damn-the-torpedoes desire to shake up toxic patterns of political influence. While disgust with the establishment is widespread (and shared by many Democrats), a shake-up without a plan is especially dangerous in the U.S.–China context, where both countries depend on each other’s political and economic stability. The world’s stock markets have likely priced in the expected outcome of a Clinton victory, so some level of economic turmoil would begin immediately upon a Trump win. Those likely to serve in important foreign policy roles in a Hillary Clinton administration are known to their prospective Chinese counterparts and vice versa. Trump’s prospective team would not be known for weeks or months, and the United States would be an unpredictable actor at a time when China is undergoing its own quiet but tense political jockeying before the 19th Party Congress in 2017. A Donald Trump win would at minimum drastically raise uncertainty in the U.S.–China relationship and could easily throw it into economic and security crisis as a  consequence of that uncertainty. Neither country wins if Trump does.

The affirmative case for Hillary Clinton as steward of the evolving U.S.–China relationship is strong and under-appreciated. Yes, the comparison with Trump would make many candidates look good, but Clinton has concrete strengths from the perspective of both countries.

First, since the comparison with Trump is the choice voters are facing, Clinton would represent stability versus Trump’s uncertainty—a real virtue at a time when the leaderships of the Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand are producing uncertainty and China’s own leadership is evolving. A Clinton administration would be well positioned to build on the effective elements of Obama-era Asia policy while revising those that are not as successful.

Second, U.S.–China relations specialists in both countries have long emphasized the importance of establishing high-level contacts and keeping presidential attention on China and East Asia. While the relationship is too complex for something on the model of the Kissinger-Zhou talks, Clinton would come to power with exceptionally strong and recent experience working with top Chinese leaders and with no learning curve on the bilateral and regional issues of the day.

Third, Clinton has a reputation in the U.S.–China context for strongly representing U.S. interests and speaking out against domestic and international Chinese actions viewed as objectionable in the United States. Still, in her time as secretary of state she did not let friction preclude cooperation: With Clinton at the helm on the U.S. side, the two governments found a way to save a substantively and symbolically important U.S.–China Strategic and Economic Dialogue meeting amidst a diplomatic crisis over the flight of the rights advocate Chen Guangcheng.

This third virtue may not seem a benefit to China, but it is. Many in China dislike Clinton and, for instance, blame her for raising tensions in the South China Sea. It is in this context that some Chinese strategic thinkers believe a Trump administration would be easier for China to deal with. In reality, however, Clinton’s association with standing up to Beijing gives her legitimacy and room for maneuver with China. It would be hard to charge Clinton with coddling or favoring China’s government. She is therefore positioned to approach relations with China from a position of strength and pragmatism. Clinton would continue the Obama administration’s important cooperation with China on climate change and is the best prepared of any candidate this cycle to seek common ground with China on difficult, pressing challenges such as the one presented by North Korea.

Even if Clinton is not a favorite in Zhongnanhai, Chinese officials know they would have no choice but to take her seriously. With both luck and concerted effort by a Clinton administration and Chinese officials, major breakthroughs could be possible. We just might find ourselves looking back and saying, “Only Hillary could go to China.”

No candidate is perfect, and this is as true for Clinton as anyone. Some of her strengths come with challenges. At the most basic level, she and her team would have to balance continuity against policy innovation and the courage to revise what hasn’t worked as hoped. Even more fundamentally, any incoming president in January 2017 will inherit a deeply divided and dysfunctional U.S. political system that will be reflected in international affairs. The damage to U.S. foreign policy done by the 2016 campaign can be limited dramatically by a Clinton win, but some damage will remain.

As with any administration, a Clinton administration would make choices with respect to China that deserve scrutiny and skepticism. On U.S.–China relations, however, Hillary Clinton is not only the best choice U.S. voters have—she is also well positioned to move beyond stale patterns in bilateral ties and to lead the U.S. government in exploring new possibilities and adapting to new challenges.

U.S.–China Week will return to regular programming next week.

ABOUT U.S.–CHINA WEEK

U.S.–China Week is a weekly news and analysis brief that covers important developments in U.S.–China relations and features especially insightful or influential new policy analysis.

Graham Webster is a senior research scholar, lecturer, and senior fellow of the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School, where he specializes in U.S.–China diplomatic, security, and economic relations through research and Track II dialogues. His website is gwbstr.com.

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are my own (and I reserve the right to change my mind).

Subscription to U.S.–China Week by clicking here or e-mailing me is free and open to all, and an archive of past editions appears at my long-running website on East Asia and the United States, Transpacifica.

Contact: Follow me on Twitter at @gwbstr. Send e-mail to [email protected].