Perhaps no country has taken more hits from Donald J. Trump than China. During the presidential campaign, Mr. Trump made it sound as if making America “great again” meant defeating China.
But much of the Chinese public supported him. And President Xi Jinping was among the first world leaders to congratulate him. Mr. Xi, in his message to the president-elect, expressed hopes of building on the “common interests” between the world’s two largest economies.
Beijing is looking forward to change in Washington. For the Chinese, the Obama era has been the most difficult period in United States-China relations since President Richard M. Nixon renewed ties in 1971. The Obama administration, with Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, made its “pivot to Asia” about containing Beijing, aiming to strengthen and enlarge the American alliance system in the Asia-Pacific region while increasing America’s military footprint there. The pivot was backed by an economic plan, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a now-moribund trade pact created in part to isolate Beijing.
Since the end of the Cold War, from President Bill Clinton to President Obama, the United States has been trying to remake the world in its own image — building an American empire in the name of globalization. Through ever larger and more complex alliances and global institutions that the United States designed, Washington has sought the global standardization of rules in trade, finance and international relations. It has used political, economic and military might to push other countries to adopt electoral democracy and market capitalism.
China has refused to yield. While the Chinese have been great beneficiaries of this era, Beijing has engaged globalization on its own terms. China’s gains from globalization have helped turn the country from a poor agrarian economy into an industrial powerhouse within one generation. Yet Beijing has insisted on strengthening its one-party political system and opening its market only so much.
This approach is working for China. The Chinese economy continues to advance in both size and technological sophistication, so much so that China looms in the minds of many American elites as the most potent long-term threat.
But these elites fail to realize — and Mr. Trump appears to understand — that while they have been obsessed with the rise of China as a threat to the United States-led liberal order, America’s domestic political foundations have been decaying. The tendency of American elites to try to mold the world to their liking created a conflict in their own country, between Americans with power and ordinary people. The American empire was built at the expense of the American nation.
Globalization has benefited those Americans at the top with concentrated wealth and influence while the middle class has stagnated or shrunk. The country’s industrial base, the economic bedrock of the middle class in the postwar era, has been shattered. America’s infrastructure is in disrepair, its education system badly underperforming, and its social contract in shambles. It has 4.5 percent of the world’s population and about 20 percent of its gross domestic product, yet accounts for nearly 40 percent of the world’s military expenditures.
With Mr. Trump in the Oval Office, there may be some tough days ahead between China and the United States. Relations may nose-dive in the short run over trade, for example.
But in the longer term, Chinese-American relations could become healthier as the Chinese prefer a relationship with a United States that doesn’t try to remake the world. The Chinese know how to compete and can deal with competitors. What the Chinese have always resented and resisted is an America that imposes its values and standards on everybody else.
Mr. Trump’s America is likely to break from this pattern. He has shown no desire to tell other countries how to do things. China is run by competent leaders who are strong-minded and pragmatic. Mr. Trump is a resolute businessman with little ideological underpinning. Without the shackles of ideology, even the most competitive rivals can make deals. This is a new day for the world’s most consequential bilateral relationship.
The Obama pivot is failing. It was unable to produce a more peaceful Asia-Pacific region, and even America’s closest ally in the region, the Philippines, is abandoning it. It was a project in costly global policing at the expense of American national interests.
Beijing harbors no design to rival the United States for global dominance. But it is only natural that it seeks to reclaim a leading role in its Asia-Pacific neighborhood. China desires its own space to reach its development goals. At the same time, America with Mr. Trump as president needs to turn its attention to rebuilding itself.
In the long term, Mr. Trump’s America and China are more likely to work with each other than in any other period in recent memory.