American voters who prioritize relations with China after the U.S. presidential elections have distinct options when they cast their ballots: antagonism and uncertainty or stability tinged with antipathy.
That’s the choice Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, respectively, when it comes to dealing with the world’s most populous nation, according to a trio of experts at a U.S.-China relations discussion organized by the Georgia China Alliance that turned into a negative referendum on Mr. Trump.
Both major-party nominees have faced down China, Mr. Trump over economic policies and Mrs. Clinton over human rights. But while the Chinese have a complicated history with Mrs. Clinton, they would prefer her over Mr. Trump, who brings an element of unpredictability to what has become one of the world’s most important bilateral relationships, said Yawei Liu, director of the China program at The Carter Center, the nonprofit run by the former Democratic president from Georgia.
“She is a known quantity. Uncertainly is the worst fear, and Donald Trump is an uncertainty,” said Dr. Liu in a discussion moderated by GCA Chairman Christopher Chan, an intellectual property lawyer at the Atlanta office of Sutherland Asbill and Brennan LLP.
That’s despite the fact that many Chinese netizens have expressed support for Mr. Trump’s seeming strength and see him positively for his business success rather than for his statements bashing their country as a “currency manipulator” that unfairly competes in the global economy, at the cost of American jobs and economic vitality.
Dr. Liu noted that Mrs. Clinton has made several trips to China, including in 1995 for the World Conference on Women when she was first lady, “and it still shapes her perception of China,” he said. At the time, she called China’s human rights policies “shameless.”
Her actions as secretary of state lend some insight as to how she would handle China today, he said. The first was when a Chinese police chief walked into the American consulate in Chengdu, China, and asked for asylum. The second was when a blind civil rights activist and lawyer, Chen Guangcheng, did the same thing.
“They both could have turned into crises, but she handled it well and nothing big happened,” Dr. Liu said. “She will fight for her values but not make it into a war. She will wage peace.”
Peace would be tougher to achieve in the increasingly complex Asia-Pacific region under a Donald Trump presidency that would be a “disaster” and a “blunder,” according to John Garver, professor emeritus in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at Georgia Institute of Technology.
On several issues Mr. Trump has stated that current U.S. policy is detrimental to the country’s best interests and “he believes that in all things that U.S. interests should be put first,” Dr. Garver said.
Dr. Garver listed some of Mr. Trump’s opinions including calling the Trans-Pacific Partnership a “lousy deal,” the North American Free Trade Agreement, a “mistake,” that Japan needs to pay for its own protection and should get nuclear weapons and that NATO is “out of date.”
In potential negotiations with China he would most likely “walk away in anger,” he said.
Mr. Trump’s “strong brand of isolationism” would be negative in many ways, he said. A re-armed Japan, especially with nuclear weapons,” would be China’s worst fear and politically would be “explosive and a recipe for disaster. The U.S. needs to be a stabilizer in Asia and Trump’s policy would endanger the peace.”
Dr. Garver believed that if Mr. Trump were elected, the business community, the American people and the country’s political allies would mobilize to prevent him from implementing his policies.
“I would see Congress seizing control of our foreign policy and that would be a disaster,” he said.
Overall a Trump presidency would threaten existing mechanisms for dialogue with China, which in large part function to reassure China that the U.S. does not oppose its emergence as a world power, he said. In addition, Mr. Trump’s “alienator” reputation could force the country’s Asian allies to choose between the U.S. and China as the region’s premier power — something none of them want.
“These allies are deathly afraid that the U.S. would leave the area. They want economic and political cooperation and they want U.S. protection without the U.S. using that leverage to make them choose between China and the U.S. Trump’s policies will drive a wedge between our allies,” Dr. Garver said.
Even though the country may not like her, Dr. Garver also believes that China would prefer a Clinton presidency.
That’s looking increasingly likely, says Alan Abramowitz, the Alben W. Barkley professor of political science at Emory University.
Dr. Abramowitz, who is one of the nation’s leading election forecasters, believes Mrs. Clinton will win by a large margin.
“Trump has alienated large voting blocks,” he said, noting that Mr. Trump’s derogatory comments about Latinos have left that group sour on him, while he would be lucky to get 2-3 percent of the African American vote. Asian-Americans, he said, are solidly Democrat and happen to represent the fastest-growing voting bloc.
Mr. Trump will not be able to make up the deficits with white voters. He needs to win at least 64 percent of that group to have a shot at the White House, Dr. Abramowitz concluded. Four years ago, Republican nominee Mitt Romney won 60 percent of the white vote, beating Barack Obama by 20 points; he still lost the overall election.
Dr. Abramowitz conceded that some of Mr. Trump’s main gripes, over trade agreements that resulted in drastic loss of manufacturing jobs in the U.S. and currency manipulation, “are not phony issues. They’re legitimate and need to be addressed.”
He also doesn’t believe that if Mrs. Clinton wins that she will be able to bring TPP back to the negotiation table. She initially favored the treaty but now, thanks to a push by her primary opponent, Bernie Sanders, she has reversed her opinion. China is not party to the TPP, but its backers have called the 12-nation deal a way to blunt China’s economic influence in the region and keep it from setting the standards for 21st-century trading relationships.
“I think she was surprised by Sanders’ success; I think he was surprised as well. He stunned everyone. TPP was a symbolic issue and it divided both parties and Sanders forced Clinton to turn away from it. Some think that if she is elected she will go back to supporting it, but she says she won’t flip. I think Bernie’s supporters will hold her feet to the fire on TPP. She still is struggling to connect with the younger voting bloc.”
He doesn’t believe that any future incident, including the debates or revolutions from Mrs. Clinton’s emails, will affect the outcome of the election.
“Issues such as trade, like TPP, are not voting issues. The race is about economic discontent, racial and ethnic issues. Trump’s supporters primary issue is racial resentment,” Dr. Abramowitz said.
Dr. Garver’s opinion was not disputed by the other two panelists, Dr. Alan Abramowitz, the Alben W. Barkley professor of political science at Emory University, and Dr. Yawei Liu, adjunct professor political science at Emory University and the associate director of the China Research Center.
The trio, along with moderator Chris Chan of Sutherland Asbill & Brennan, spoke at the Carter Center on U.S. China Relations.
The well-attended event was sponsored by the Carter Center, Georgia China Alliance, Lucy Lu & Associates, Kennesaw State University Confucius Institute, Sutherland, Emory University, the China Research Center and Chinese Business Association of Atlanta.