Donald Trump. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski
Donald Trump shifted US policy towards the Indo-Pacific. Photo: AFP / Brendan Smialowski

In the first year, especially in the early months, of his presidency, China’s state-run newspapers and academics often perceived Donald Trump as weak and bluffing, or a “paper tiger.” But they may now see him differently.

On the eve of Trump’s swearing-in as America’s 45th president on January 20, 2017, the English-language China Daily, one of Beijing’s main mouthpieces, vehemently dismissed his team’s “warlike rhetoric” on trade relations, stating “All the trade war threat to China is just the bluffing of a paper tiger.”

Following Trump’s about-turn on the “One China” policy a few weeks later, a Chinese scholar, Shi Yinhong, claimed that the US president “lost his first fight with [his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping] and he will be looked at as a paper tiger.”

His decision to honor America’s long-held policy, after months questioning it, led Xinhua to even publish a tweet provocatively asking, “What has changed his mind?”. China’s official news agency later published its survey results, according to which 30% agreed with the pre-set statement that “Blackmailing didn’t work.” Obviously, the message was not aimed at the Chinese audience because, like YouTube and Facebook, Twitter is banned in the strictly-censored, authoritarian country.

Shi Yinhong, director of the Center for American Studies at Renmin University of China, also told the Global Times, another influential state-run newspaper, in August 2017, that “Trump is good at bluffing, but he is just a paper tiger,” recalling that he had already backed down from his confrontational stance over the “One China” policy with Beijing.

The Chinese held an optimistic view of Trump because, besides not following through on some of the pledges he had made during the campaign about getting tough with Beijing, in his first year in office, he made many other decisions that would greatly benefit China

The Chinese held an optimistic view of Trump because, besides not following through on some of the pledges he had made during the campaign about getting tough with Beijing, in his first year in office, he made many other decisions that would greatly benefit China. These included his withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a huge trade deal championed by his predecessor, Barack Obama.

In January 2018, The New Yorker ran a feature article, in which its author referred to remarks by Jin Yinan, a strategist at China’s National Defense University, that by abandoning the TPP, Trump “has given China a huge gift” and that as his America “retreats globally, China shows up.”

The Atlantic, another major US magazine, published a similar piece three months later. This piece quoted Shen Dingli, a professor of international relations at Fudan University, as saying that Trump is “an especially easy president for China to handle,” and the Chinese “are lucky” to have an American president such as him.

Shen made such comments because during his “state visit–plus” to China last November, during which he was lavishly treated, Trump hailed Xi as “a very special man,” professed his “very deep respect” for the country and the “noble traditions of its people.” What’s more, instead of blaming China, he gave it “great credit” for taking advantage of the US on trade.

Not just Chinese media and intelligentsia but, apparently, many (liberal-minded) people in America and the West also believed that Trump was “a paper tiger” or that his presidency was “a gift” or “a win” for the Asian power. Besides the New Yorker’s “Making China Great Again” headline and The Atlantic’s “China Loves Trump,” other news organizations in the US and other Western countries, such as Foreign Policy, CNN and the Guardian, ran pieces expressing similar views.

Without a doubt, Trump’s withdrawal from key international multilateral agreements, notably the TPP, was – and remains – a strategic mistake because it gave China a huge opportunity and the moral high ground to present itself as a, if not the, new global champion of free trade, open economy and multilateralism.

Actually, as Trump’s America “retreats globally [Xi’s] China shows up” at almost all international key forums to portray itself in such a manner. These include Xi’s presence at, and address to – the first such by a Chinese leader – the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2017.

But it has failed to take advantage of the huge opportunity offered by Trump. Nearly two years after Trump’s election, the Asian giant has been unable to lead the Asia-Pacific region – let alone the world – on trade. As noted, despite Trump’s protectionist, isolationist and unilateralist posturing, Xi’s China has not yet reached any major bilateral or multilateral trade deals. A simple reason for this is that for all – or contrary to – Xi’s pledges, the socialist-communist country is not really a free and open economy.

More notably, Trump has turned out not to be “an easy president for China” or “a paper tiger,” as the Chinese – and some Americans and Westerners – believed.

Besides waging a far-reaching trade war against China since June this year, the Trump administration has adopted a tough posture vis-à-vis the latter on many other key issues, including cybersecurity, human rights, politics and ideology, as well as geopolitical flashpoints like Taiwan and the South China Sea.

Not since the 1970s, when the two countries normalized ties, has a US president pursued such an all-round adversarial stance toward China. Indeed, unlike his predecessors, including Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama, who regarded China as a “strategic partner” that the US should embrace, Trump and his administration now see it as a “strategic competitor,” “rival” or “adversary”.

In “remarks on the [Trump] administration’s policy toward China” early this month, US Vice-President Mike Pence delivered what was seen as the most severe and comprehensive indictment of China’s behavior by any American leader since the Cold War. A day later, the US Defense Department released a report saying: “China represents a significant and growing risk to the supply of materials and technologies deemed strategic and critical to US national security.”

Global Times, an influential offspring of the People’s Daily, China’s flagship newspaper, quickly responded, acknowledging that Pence’s speech “shows Washington’s tougher policy on China” and regarding the Pentagon’s report as more evidence that the US “made a sharp turn on” its relations with Beijing.

In an essay published in the Wall Street Journal on October 19, Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, also revealed that senior Chinese officials he had met in Beijing were angry with Pence’s remarks. One of his hosts told him: “The Chinese people are upset and angry. From beginning to end [Pence] was just bashing China. In 40 years, we have never seen a speech like this. Many believe it is a symbol of a new cold war.”

Trump is not just harsh on China, he is also a very unconventional and unpredictable president, making it even more difficult for Chinese leaders, who always put stability first and foremost, to handle

Judging by their reactions, it is clear that the Chinese now realize – and possibly worry – that under Trump’s watch, they have to deal with a different America, which is willing to upend the types of bilateral relations they have become accustomed to since the early 1970s.

Trump is not just harsh on China, he is also a very unconventional and unpredictable president, making it even more difficult for Chinese leaders, who always put stability first and foremost, to handle.

But, more worryingly for Beijing, Trump’s tough posture will undermine China’s development in general and Xi’s ambitions in particular.

For instance, a key part of the Chinese supremo’s “Chinese dream of national rejuvenation” is “Made in China 2025” – a flagship strategy openly aimed at transforming China into “a world leader in science and technology.” Trump’s current tariff war against China primarily targets this ambitious state-run scheme. Besides imposing tariffs that target “goods related” to the policy, the Trump White House also implements other “specific investment restrictions and enhanced export controls for Chinese persons and entities related to the acquisition of industrially significant technology.”

Faced with a tough Trump who shows no sign of bluffing, Chinese officials and media have tempered their views.

In blunt remarks in late August, Cui Tiankai, China’s ambassador to the US, said that Washington should “give up the illusion” that his country “will ever give in to intimidation [and] coercion”. But two months later, he adopted a softer posture, calling for cooperation, rather than confrontation.

In March this year, the Global Times said the “US has been wielding sticks worldwide over the past year. Washington needs to be taught a real lesson and such a lesson can only be taught by China, the world’s second-largest economy.” In another editorial a month later, the party-backed outlet again adopted a hawkish tone, saying that China’s “trade counterstrikes give US painful lessons to learn” and vowing that the country “is ready to fight to the end.”

Yet, of late, the nationalistic tabloid’s tone has sounded unusually soft – or more cooperative and less confrontational. For instance, in commenting about “Pence’s aggressive speech” and America’s “far tougher line on China,” instead of engaging in a war of words as it had often done, it advised that “China needs to … stay away from emotionally motivated disputes” and “must make an objective and fact-based strategic judgment of the US on the basis of current bilateral relations.”

The paper editorialized: “In the face of growing anti-China rhetoric by US politicians, China has to continue opening up and strike back in the trade war while maintaining cooperation with the US.”

In another editorial, it said, “China knows how powerful the US is, and China doesn’t want any strategic confrontations. But the US should respect China’s right to development.”

In many respects, such a restrained tone is wise because it prevents the tensions between the world’s two biggest economies and militaries from escalating into a new Cold War, or worse, a hot war. But, in many others, it also shows China now recognizes that Trump, as stated by his deputy, “has adopted a new approach” and  “taken decisive action to respond to China” and “will not back down.”

If many Chinese thought Trump was “a paper tiger” about a year ago, it is likely that few – if any – have the same view now.

Failure to assess the billionaire-turned president is also a key factor behind China’s current all-round impasse with the US.

Xuan Loc Doan

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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