More than 40 years ago, Mao Zedong reportedly said, “All is chaos under heaven, and the situation is good.” It’s as good a description as any of Donald Trump’s governing strategy. In the 10 days he’s served as president, Trump has demonstrated, through his attacks on the media, his disregard for international and constitutional norms, and his pathological obsession with his own reality, that like the Communist revolutionaries of yesteryear, he is more interested in transforming America than running it. It’s a “shock to the system,” as spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway tweeted on Saturday. “And he’s just getting started.” Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that Trump adviser Steve Bannon once proudly described himself as a Leninist. “Lenin,” Bannon told the former Marxist intellectual Ronald Radosh in 2013, “wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”
All this puts the People’s Republic of China in a strange position. Though the modern Chinese state may have been founded on revolutionary chaos, after Mao’s death in 1976, China moved away from a chaotic authoritarianism and toward one predicated on order, internationalism, and fealty to the state. In the years since taking office in November 2012, China’s Communist Party Secretary Xi Jinping has shown that he wants to preserve the system that brought him to power. “China took a brave step to embrace the global market,” Xi said in a well-regarded speech at Davos earlier in January—the first time a Chinese president attended the international elite gathering. “It has proved to be the right strategic choice,” he added. All the very recent debates over how China’s rise would disrupt the international system now seem positively quaint. In the age of Trump, it’s America that’s disrupting international norms while China positions itself as the defender of the status quo. This strange entwining of history—Trump adopting anarchic anti-establishment policies formerly associated with Communist leaders, while Xi burnishes his global liberal credentials—will benefit China’s international interests at the expense of the United States.
In the months since Trump’s election victory, there’s been a widespread assumption that Russia would be the big global winner in the Trump era. After all, the U.S. intelligence community has accused Russia of meddling on Trump’s behalf in the election, and the candidate has spoken openly about his skepticism of NATO, his desire to partner with Russia to fight ISIS, and his fondness for Vladimir Putin. Meanwhile, Trump bashed China consistently on the campaign trail, saying, “What China is doing is beyond belief” and that its unfair trade policies “rape” the United States. Even before taking office, he enraged Beijing with his provocative December phone call with the president of Taiwan. Trump has also surrounded himself with outspoken China hawks. The director of his newly created National Trade Council, Peter Navarro, has long argued that China’s handling of its currency, the yuan, “is threatening to tear asunder the entire global economic fabric and free trade framework.” Trump’s nominee for the United States trade representative, Robert Lighthizer, has called for a “much more aggressive approach in dealing with China.”
But the events of Trump’s presidency so far, and many of the policies he’s laid out, serve to strengthen China and its place in the world. The new U.S. administration is—seemingly inadvertently—giving Beijing wide latitude to create policy in Asia and strengthening the global appeal of China’s political system.
The biggest win for China so far was Trump’s decision to cancel the planned Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, gifting China a far freer hand to dictate trade policy in its backyard. The TPP—a proposed 12-nation trade pact representing roughly 40 percent of the world’s economic output—would have lowered tariffs, simplified international regulations, and cut red tape for cross-border trade and investment for American companies and companies from member states. Beijing understandably hated the TPP: Not only did the agreement pointedly exclude China and reportedly emphasized environmental regulations and intellectual property, but it competed with two Chinese-led trade strategies—One Belt, One Road, and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. The former is a grand global strategy meant to link China with the rest of Eurasia, while the latter is a 16-nation trading bloc that pointedly excludes the United States. China benefits from the RCEP in much the same way that the United States would have benefited from the TPP: lowering the price of goods for Chinese consumers and expanding the market reach for Chinese companies.