Donald Trump, the new United States president-elect, has a conspicuous, very important characteristic: from winning the Republican nomination to winning the presidential campaign and even now, he has never shown sincere respect for American constitutional democracy, never sincerely echoed the mainstream values of tolerance and the moral legitimacy of social pluralism and never expressed sincere endorsement of the relatively open and free world economic and trade order or broader global, international and transnational cooperation. Strictly speaking, to a great extent, he won the campaign precisely because of this ― he catered to, incited and rallied the American “white grassroots” with intemperance, imperiousness, bigotry and xenophobia. His win is an ominous harbinger for the world.
In fact, people sensed the “climate change” before Trump’s triumph: Global political culture is taking a hard turn toward nativism-populism-nationalism. The strong momentum of Trump-Sanders isolationism indicates that constitutional democracy has encountered quite extensive suspicion or disbelief in many “white grassroots” American voters. The unexpected Brexit vote, the signs of economic protectionism that are far more pervasive and frequent than in the first 20 years after the Cold War, the ever-spreading public resistance against Muslim immigrants in European nations and the stronger momentum of European ultra-rightists all point to such inclination.
On top of all that, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggressive confrontational strategic stance against the West continues to be popular at home. Also demonstrating the global trend toward nativist nationalism: the populist Islamizing moves and dramatic centralization of power by the Erdogan government in Turkey; Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s extra-judicial anti-drug campaign, anti-American rhetoric and frequent use of foul language (along with the applauses he has received from the Philippine grassroots); the significant changes in mass politics that put Taiwan’s independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party in power via general election; the seriously disruptive “yellow umbrella” Hong Kong-independence movements and even some significant public opinions inside China.
The weakening of the West presents strategic opportunities for China, but a more protectionist world increases China’s economic difficulties.
Trump’s win shows that the world people have been familiar with since the end of the Cold War is in serious danger. What is this familiar world? It’s a place where the growing trend of globalization endorsed by an absolute majority of major countries with their fundamental policies resulted generally in relatively beneficial economic or social effects worldwide. In this world, there was almost ubiquitous ideological faith in the prevailing global liberal political culture. In this world, not only does China cherish confidence derived mainly from reform and opening up as well as from its dramatic economic takeoff, but developed countries also had much self-confidence, especially prior to the 2008 financial crisis and economic recession. In this world, relations between major countries have been, generally speaking, relatively stable and mutually accommodating: a United States not so nervous, a China not so radical, a Russia not so desperate, a Japan not so “revisionist.”
Now all the above has changed, or is changing conspicuously. In other words, the world people have been familiar with since around the end of the Cold War has come to, or at least is coming to, an end. To China, an evidently weakening and disorganizing U.S. and West would inevitably present many strategic and diplomatic opportunities, while a much more protectionist world would also substantially increase China’s economic and financial difficulties at a time when China has its own economic and financial troubles. Besides, as Chinese strategic prudence has significantly reduced in recent years, a weakening and less organized West may very likely make China even bolder in strategic foreign policy in the long term.
To be more specific, Trump’s security and diplomatic policies may offer opportunities China can take advantage of (although such chances may be slimmer than many Chinese anticipate now, and may include the above-mentioned risks). This would be secondary, however, compared with the damage he may inflict on China-U.S. economic and financial relations, because the foremost challenges facing China now are economic and financial in nature, and the China-U.S. economic and financial relationship means a lot to the Chinese economic health at home.