Trump, China, and the Middle East

By February 7, 2017

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 408, February 7, 2017

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Donald Trump was intensely critical of China throughout his campaign, and tension between the two countries is likely to increase now that he occupies the White House – but only in the economic and diplomatic spheres. The Middle East, including Israel, could nevertheless be drawn into the conflict as a confrontation zone between the superpowers due to the region’s natural resources, intersecting sea routes, and overall geostrategic importance.

Ever since Donald Trump won the US presidential race, the issue of US-China relations has been high on the agenda of both parties. The subject preoccupies the president more than Islamic terror, Vladimir Putin, and other more pressing issues facing the world. This should not be surprising. Throughout the campaign, Trump pointed his finger time and again at China. His attacks often occurred during speeches in declining, heavy-industrial cities in the “Rust Belt” states, where he subsequently achieved unexpected victories.

Trump’s position is based on the loss of 2-2.4 million American jobs between 1999 and 2011 that he claims were stolen by the Chinese. This occurred, he states, because of the transfer to China of many companies and factories that used to operate on US soil. This transfer is interpreted by Trump as an act of plunder. The lack of international monitoring of the yuan is another element of his case against China: Chinese exporters can gain an advantage over their competitors from other countries due to the Chinese government’s control over its official currency rate, which does not relate to international rates.

After the election, disagreements quickly began to emerge between Trump and the Chinese leadership.

On December 3, 2016, Trump took a phone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. The call reportedly lasted only ten minutes, but its importance was not in its length or even its content. Since 1979, when US President Jimmy Carter transferred the US embassy from Taipei, capital of Taiwan, to Beijing, capital of China, no conversation between the American and Taiwanese heads of state has been documented.

Though this suggests a lack of contact, the two countries do have a relationship, as Trump pointed out via Twitter: “Interesting how the US sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call.” Over the years, the US has indeed sold – and continues to sell – billions of dollars’ worth of weapons to Taiwan. Their extensive bilateral trade reaches tens of billions annually (US$86.9 billion in 2015). In addition, the US safeguards the security of Taiwan and the integrity of its democratic government against all external threats, including repeated threats from Beijing.

The phone call was not the end of it. A series of tweets by Trump, and responses to them published in government-owned Chinese newspapers, extended the altercation. So did the confiscation by Chinese forces of an unmanned underwater US vessel cruising in international waters in the South China Sea.

On December 22, 2016, US authorities announced that the online shopping site Tao-bao, belonging to the giant Chinese company Alibaba, is being returned to the American blacklist of “questionable” businesses that allegedly sell counterfeit goods after having been removed from the list in 2012. Tao-bao’s spokesperson expressed regret over the decision, and wondered whether it was the product of the tense political atmosphere between the two countries. Trump announced the same day that economist Peter Navarro, who takes a tough stand with China on trade issues, will be appointed head of the new trade council to be set up in the White House.

On January 3, 2017, in response to North Korea’s claim that it was on the verge of developing a nuclear weapon that could target the US, Trump tweeted, “won’t happen!” He then added, “China has been taking out massive amounts of money and wealth from the US in totally one-sided trade, but won’t help with North Korea. Nice!” In response, Xinhua News (China’s official press agency) published an article attacking Trump’s “addiction to Twitter” and claiming that his tweeting is breaking with longstanding diplomatic protocols.

Is the struggle between China and the US likely to continue? Yes, but it will probably focus on economic and diplomatic issues and is unlikely to result in violence or the outbreak of war. The parties are the world’s two largest markets and one other’s main trading partners. They have too much to lose and not enough to gain from war, a fact they both seem to appreciate.

As far as the Middle East and Israel are concerned, Trump will need time to become acquainted with all the issues related to China, the Middle East, and their relations with the US. Significant events are thus unlikely to occur in the coming months. In the more distant future, if the parties choose to continue delivering verbal blows to one another, the Middle East and Israel might find themselves at the center of attention.

The US and China might want to determine their balance of power by using the Middle East as a testing arena. Thus, the new US administration might, for instance, announce that it will henceforth cease to secure international shipping routes unless a fee is paid, or will ensure the security of only the US Navy. Such declarations would result in a rapid increase in oil, gas, and maritime transport prices to a degree that might prompt activity shutdowns. This would be particularly hard on China as it would paralyze its local economy. The Middle East, where the world’s largest oil and gas reserves are located, might find itself dragged into chaos in the wake of such announcements.

During his campaign, Trump made clear his conviction that any US action abroad should come with a price tag. If he repeats such statements now that he is in office, pro-American actors, including Israel and US allies in the vicinity of China, might be weakened. China’s power over its rivals would be strengthened, since those rivals would be rendered defenseless by an American distancing.

An announcement along these lines might also force China’s allies to demand ever more insistently that Beijing assure them that it will intervene on their behalf if necessary. However, China has consistently refrained from intervening in foreign countries, and it is difficult to imagine the Chinese leadership changing this stance because of one declaration by an American president.

Major-General Jin Yinan, one of the most prominent Chinese military strategists, commented that “Trump may be good for US-Sino relations if he focused on his promise to ‘make America great again’ rather than interfere through foreign policy as other presidents had. He may not even be as interfering as Hillary Clinton would have been likely to be.” And perhaps it will be good for relations between the US and the Middle East, including Israel, if each side sticks to its own affairs.

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Roie Yellinek is a doctoral student in the department of Middle East studies at Bar-Ilan University.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family

Roie Yellinek

Roie Yellinek is a Ph.D. student at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat-Gan (Israel), a doctoral researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute. He is a specialist in the growing relationship between the Middle East and China, especially in regards to the soft power component of Chinese diplomacy. His research is based on fieldwork conducted in China, Israel and other countries. He has authored numerous articles that have been published by research institutions and newspapers in both Israeli and international media outlets.