Even before Donald Trump has taken office as president, his tweets are adding another dangerous layer to America’s delicate relationship with the world’s second-largest economy, China.
An editorial posted on the state-controlled media outlet Xinhua this week basically told Trump to cool it with the tweets. “An obsession with ‘Twitter foreign policy’ is undesirable,” the headline said, according to a translation by The New York Times.
The article said, according to The Times: “Everyone recognizes the common sense that foreign policy isn’t child’s play, and even less is it like doing business deals.”
Now, on one hand Chinese leaders have said they will not take Trump’s tweets as US policy statements – a relief considering the minefield of complex issues between the two countries including trade and security in the South China Sea.
On the other hand, the current political climate in China could make doing that very difficult.
Living on the edge
This year the Chinese Communist Party will be holding its 19th National Congress, in which President Xi Jinping is expected to consolidate his power over the state.
According to Evan Medeiros, a managing director at Eurasia Group, that means we’re about to witness a China “on edge.”
In an interview with Bloomberg TV, Medeiros said the past year’s politically charged environment could produce a China “that overreacts.” Trump’s tweets could become a catalyst for that if they distract Xi from his party’s congress. It’s not just that. People who study Chinese culture know that the concept of “face” should be taken very seriously. Face is how people measure an individual’s respect, prestige, and/or status.
It’s not a totally foreign concept of course – we all talk about “saving face” – and Americans too might expect their political leadership to respond to hostility from abroad, even in the form of a tweet. But it’s enough of a cultural dynamic in China that diplomats and business leaders know to take it seriously there, and it might make it harder for Xi to just ignore Trump’s provocations.
So, how could China retaliate? Medeiros offers that the government could easily go after US companies in China.
Business Insider asked the chief economist at the Institute of International Finance, Gene Ma, a similar question last month. We asked what China could do if Trump were to start a trade war with China, and Ma said the country did indeed have the means to hit the US back in a meaningful way.
“Beijing has many options for possible retaliation,” he said. “For example, China can replace Boeing jets with Airbus and US soybeans with those from South America. A trade war will also jeopardize progress with the US-China Bilateral Investment Treaty, which is currently under negotiation.”
And that’s just how it starts. Who knows how it ends.