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How China can take advantage of Donald Trump’s U.S. election win

Alas, first Brexit, now the Trump presidency. The disillusioned voters in the world’s oldest industrialised country and the world’s largest economy have combined to serve a double whammy to the governing self-aggrandising elites and their complacent establishment forces. In particular, as the obviously flustered mainstream Western media highlight the words “stunning” and “shocking” to describe Donald Trump’s triumph to become America’s 45th president, the consensus is that his victory could signal a repudiation of globalism and the prevailing international political and economic order.

As shock waves reverberate across the world, people are trying to make sense of the ascendancy of a real estate mogul turned reality TV celebrity with zero government experience, who is reported to have lied, cheated his contractors and employees, evaded taxes and groped women – and bragged about it.

It is interesting to note that some American mainstream media and pundits – whose views probably alienated middle class Americans – are still pinning the “stunning” development on the so-called less educated “working-class white voters”.

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Internationally, Trump’s rhetoric on intending to put American interests first by withdrawing militarily and economically from overseas and punishing those countries seen as stealing American jobs has unnerved many US allies and foes alike.

In China, the people have greeted the Trump presidency with mixed feelings. Even before Tuesday’s election, official media had started to run commentaries on the decline of America’s moral and political leadership in the world, citing the fiery populist rhetoric of both candidates. In a commentary on Wednesday, the Global Times painted Trump’s win as a severe blow to America’s conventional politics, exaggerating it as an American-style “Cultural Revolution”.

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As expected, Chinese leaders largely remained reticent on the American election – until Wednesday when President Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ) congratulated Trump in a telegram, saying he hoped to work with him to develop bilateral ties from a new starting point.

Privately, Chinese officials harbour conflicting views about Trump’s presidency based upon his anti-China rhetoric in the campaign trail.

To be sure, even long before the election, many officials had accepted that no matter who the winner was, the new US administration would most likely get tougher on China politically and economically, though Trump and Hillary Clinton might have taken different approaches in doing so. A Clinton administration would have continued the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia policy, as she was one of its chief planners, and would have strengthened US criticisms of China’s human rights record and other political issues.

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Despite Trump’s lack of foreign policy experience or consistent world view, his campaign remarks show he is the most likely to make major changes to US foreign policy, and this could bring both opportunities and challenges for China. From a strategic geopolitical point of view, his win has basically killed the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership, a key economic component of the pivot to Asia policy, which is widely seen as an attempt to contain the rise of China.

Along with the killing of the TPP, the overall pivot to Asia policy in its current form will probably be amended substantially or re-engineered as Trump is unlikely to carry on one of Obama’s major political legacies. As Washington’s relations with traditional allies such as Japan and South Korea are likely to undergo subtle changes, the US-led ring to circle China is likely to lose its steam, thus reducing geopolitical pressure on China.

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But mainland trade and finance officials are deeply concerned by Trump’s repeated threats to impose tariffs of up to 45 per cent on imported Chinese goods and label China as a currency manipulator. They are also worried by his comments accusing China of waging an economic war against the US and stealing American jobs. In April, asked about Trump’s tariff proposal on imported Chinese goods, the then Finance Minister Lou Jiwei ( 樓繼偉 ) called him “an irrational type”. This was the first open criticism of Trump from a senior Chinese official.

Although Chinese officials and analysts recognise the heated campaign rhetoric may not all be translated into action, many believe the Trump administration will get much tougher on China regarding trade and the yuan, even if an all-out trade war is unlikely.

But such pressure may be a blessing in disguise for China. With the sure collapse of TPP, China can take advantage of the opportunity to accelerate its own efforts to pursue regional and bilateral free trade agreements in Asia and beyond.

Furthermore, as the US is set to go down the road of protectionism, there is no better opportunity for China to accelerate its opening-up policy and further exert its economic leadership in the world by embracing globalism and championing international trade and investment.

Wang Xiangwei is the former editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post. He is now based in Beijing as editorial adviser to the paper