US President Barack Obama and Republican President-elect Donald Trump shake hands during a transition planning meeting in the Oval Office at the White House. Photo: AFP/Jim Watson
Barack Obama and Donald Trump shake hands during a transition planning meeting in the Oval Office at the White House in 2016. After the 2020 election, signs of a smooth transition from Trump to Joe Biden are yet to be seen. Photo: AFP / Jim Watson

China’s leaders are taking a studied and pragmatic attitude toward a Trump presidency, though most thought it would be better if Hillary Clinton had won, says Robert Lawrence Kuhn, a global strategist and CCTV commentator who serves as an official adviser to the Chinese government.

Kuhn, a former investment banker who briefs Chinese officials on world affairs, also believes there isn’t much danger of greater Sino-US military tension in the South China Sea under Trump, who has taken a lower profile toward American involvement in that region.

China’s leadership also looks favorably on Trump’s reputation as a dealmaker and isn’t interested in filling a regional trade vacuum if Trump scraps Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), according to Kuhn, the author of How China’s Leaders Think and The Man Who Changed China — a biography of former Chinese President Jiang Zemin.

Kuhn spoke with Asia Times about how Donald Trump’s election as US president will affect Sino-US relations.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn is a longtime adviser to China’s leaders. Photo: Wikipedia

Asia Times: How can we expect Chinese President Xi Jinping and the Chinese leadership to react to Trump’s unexpected victory in the US presidential election?

Kuhn: While China’s elites scrupulously avoid taking public positions on internal affairs of other countries — especially US politics — their incessant concern for stability, international as well as domestic, moved many to believe that Clinton, not Trump, would be better for China, even though Trump would likely weaken US commitments and alliances in Asia.

The leadership is responding to Trump’s stunning victory cautiously and with studied protocol. In his message of congratulations, President Xi Jinping said: “I highly value the relations between China and the United States, and I am looking forward to working together with you to expand China-US cooperation in every field, at the bilateral, regional and global levels, on the basis of the principles of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation.”

This is well-thought out, recognizing past achievements, advising continuity, while providing opportunities for advancement.

AT: Is there a likelihood of increased Sino-US military tension in South China Sea and elsewhere?

Kuhn: Trump has shown no great interest in using US military forces in foreign adventures — other than against ISIS which is an easy target, as it were. So I do not think there is likelihood of greater military tension, probably less than there might have been under Clinton, who would have more resolute policies. That said, we should wait for the appointments of key Trump cabinet officials.

AT: Are Chinese companies worried about increased US vetting of their acquisition bids for US companies (Examples: Senate opposition to Dalian Wanda, Zhongwang International bids) and will a Trump presidency make them more wary about pursuing M & As in US?

Kuhn: It’s too soon for reaction from Chinese companies, but officials are cautiously optimistic that consistency will be maintained. A few think that because Trump is a dealmaker, progress can even be made — but they will have to find a way to give something in the deal.

AT: How seriously is the Chinese leadership taking Trump’s anti-China trade rhetoric?

Kuhn: Again, everyone is cautious so far, expecting consistency to be maintained — because reason concludes that trade is good for both sides. Yet, Trump must be able to show something for his high-profile pronouncements. There are deals to be made; it will be fascinating to watch how they develop.

AT: Will China move quickly to fill a regional political vacuum if Trump scraps Obama’s Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership?

Kuhn: China is more concerned about maintaining open trade with the US and resisting protectionism globally, including of course in the US, than it is about filling a regional vacuum. China’s highest priority is its domestic economy — maintaining adequate growth, transforming the industrial model, realizing the “moderately prosperous society” by 2020 — and that these are far more important than competing for Asian dominance.

Doug Tsuruoka is the Asia Times Editor-at-Large

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