Has the Election of Donald Trump Handed the 21st Century to China?

by Raymond Kao and Anna Lorraine Isorena

I remember laughing when I first heard that Donald Trump, a billionaire television personality and businessman, was running for president. I remember the feeling of shock and disbelief of the fact that same man who was the host of the show The Apprentice had managed to beat the other seasoned Republican candidates in the primaries. I remember the moment the electoral votes for Texas and Florida came in and showed that Hillary Clinton no longer had the chance of winning the election. It felt like somehow the strong democracy of the United States have fallen victim to the recent rise of populism. Following his campaign, the controversies of the newly elected president of the United States had haunted him, from his executive orders to his involvements with Russia. The dark clouds of scandal and controversy now surround the White House, beacon of the free world.

Political analysts and scholars had forecast a shift in power from the West to the East, as China continues to strengthen its economy and modernize its military in order to become a global power challenging the United States. With the European debt crisis and threat of more countries following Brexit, European nations do not have the capability of being able to help the United States accentuate its power. Russia, while having massive military capabilities and influence in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, currently does not have the economic or social stability to take over the role of a global superpower. China, on the other hand, is on its way to becoming a regional hegemon with its rapid economic growth paired with its military expansion.

Considering these two factors, one might make the argument that the election of Donald Trump has handed the twenty-first century over to China as a result of Trump undermining the democracy and superpower status of the United States. While I believe that President Trump will set America back for a few years, the United States will still hold the key to the rest of the century, under a few assumptions.

The first assumption relies on the election of socially progressive leaders in the United States. The midterm elections in 2018 will be indicative of the political climate and will determine whether the Republican Party will continue to have control of Congress. If Republicans continue to control Congress after the midterm elections, they will most likely continue down the partisan path of regressive policies currently being pushed by the Trump administration today. If Democrats manage to gain control of Congress, not only would it become easier to restrict Trump’s policies that may have a negative impact on American economic, social, and political well-being, but it would also signal to the rest of the world that the United States democracy has remained strong even with the threat of populism and conservatism. Additionally, the outcomes of the midterms will also help predict the outcome of the next presidential election. Donald Trump will most likely run for reelection, but the outcome of the midterm elections will show where the interests of the American people lie and it is up to the Democrats to procure a fresh candidate that is popular on both sides of the party line.

Another assumption is that the world will not spiral into any major conflicts. The rise of the United States to the global superpower that it is today was a result of the advantage that both world wars have given the US. The first world war made the United States the largest creditor, loaning money to devastated European nations. The second world war brought upon the Bretton Woods monetary system that signified the United States’ world leader status and economy as strong and powerful. Furthermore, the legacy of the Cold War nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union have solidified US hegemony because of the creation of new network and communications through NATO expansion and the modernization of a powerful military arsenal that gave the US command of air, space, and sea. Should another global conflict arise, the United States should preserve its current advantage in the coming century, regardless of whether or not Donald Trump is still president.

While China’s industrial growth is unparalleled in history, they have shown repeatedly that they are not willing to become the world’s babysitter. Their core interests are focused on domestic development as well as stable proximity relations. China has no current plans to interfere in other world affairs unless it affects them (such as the Middle East conflict raising energy import prices).

Domestically, China faces the usual struggles of authoritarian rule as well as pressure to bring Taiwan back into the mainland under its “One China” policy. The single party rule has been plagued with illegal protests, with the last Tiananmen Square protest still fresh in the minds of the top leaders. The government has its hands full balancing policing, maintaining censorship with the Great Firewall, and charming its constituents to ensure stable regime rule for the foreseeable future. So long as democracies exist, people under authoritarian rule will always fight for guaranteed and protected personal freedoms.

Internationally, the dispute for control of the South China Sea is straining relationships between China and the ASEAN countries. China’s interests in the South China Sea are two-fold: appease nationalistic pressure and, at the same time, secure the resources in the area to continue their current rate of development. In the eyes of the United States, the regional dispute might seem like a Chinese modern imperialism. It is indeed true with China not only securing strategic geographical territories by sea and land, but also with foreign investments all throughout Africa and South America in order to be able to level the playing field with the US. It cannot be denied that China’s strategy might alarm the international community as it implies a disruption of the status quo carefully maintained by the US. However, imperialism in the twenty-first century is not such a piece of cake as it was more than a century ago. Through their aggressive actions, China has been running the risk of angering the ASEAN nations and their superpower allies. At the same time, in the Yellow Sea, China must carefully gauge the actions of North Korea. As the DPRK’s primary trading partner, the regime is hard pressed to ensure that North Korean weapons testing does not reflect negatively upon them. China has no desire to be seen as the middleman for the DPRK nor does China want defend countries like the US does. It is safe to say that China’s imperialism are essentially for its own nation’s interests only; therefore, replacing the United States as a global leader of the twenty-first century with a Chinese global takeover is highly unlikely.

It is also no secret that with China’s rapid economic growth, it is able to supply a substantial defense budget to expand and modernize its conventional and nuclear military arsenal. China’s militarization has moved from domestic protection to projection of its power internationally through domination of the South China Sea and its neighboring regional countries. There are speculations that China has been increasing their defense budget to take control of the South China Sea in order to build a shield from the US by assembling an arsenal of missile sensors, and other guidance related technologies to deny any adversaries of being able to freely move in its range of air and space. While that may be true, China’s interest of controlling the Western Pacific theater might not be with the intention of taking over the United States’ position as a global leader in the twenty-first century, but to merely handicap any western pivot in Asia by adapting an anti-area access denial strategy. There is no reason for Trump’s election to pass the US global leader status to China if China’s interests essentially prioritize defense. Like other non US-allied countries such as Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea that seek nuclear nuclear technology, China’s A2/AD strategy is to defend and balance its arsenal capability with the US because the primacy of the United States is unrivaled.

The key strategy to US hegemony is the command of the commons – also known as the command of air, space, and sea. With a $600 billion defense budget that equates to more than other major countries’ defenses combined, as well as having a strong economy that produces almost a third of the gross world product, the US is able to develop state of the art communications satellites, nuclear attack submarines, and a sophisticated air strategy, allowing them to influence their allies’ economy and military as well as control and restrict access to strategic spaces. Additionally, taking advantage of NATO alliances, the US has the ability to provide not only European allies, but also Pacific states like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan with radar-capable ballistic missile defense systems equipped with tracking and intercepting Chinese missiles at different phases during a launch. A Trump presidency will most likely not affect US hegemony mainly because unlike the image of a weakened and divided US under Trump’s administration, the US military image maintains to be unparalleled. Technological innovation and progress will also heavily determine the course of the twenty-first century. Silicon Valley and Beijing have different advantages for the startup culture, but Silicon Valley’s years of experience will keep the United States at the forefront of the technological race. The United States, with strong intellectual property rights, cater to the bright minds looking to develop the next big thing. China, although blessed a larger market, are still in a phase where they look to clone and improve rather than create. With cheap counterfeit items flooding the markets and lax enforcement of intellectual property rights, Chinese startups have a long way to go before innovation can truly take root.

Donald Trump’s legacy is already adversely affecting American citizens. While his proposed policies will set the United States back socioeconomically, the American people understand the need for progressive policies if they wish to stay at the top. Self preservation is a strongly ingrained sentiment, one that will allow the United States to recover from the next four years.

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Raymond Kao

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