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Richard McGregor: Trump's China stance could provoke an explosive reaction

Whatever cards the US leader plays, Beijing has many options for responding

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  © Reuters

It is early days for Donald Trump, but the contours of his administration's Asia policy are coming into view. Based on the new president's statements and appointments before inauguration, both announced and mooted, the White House is likely to be close to Japan, sympathetic to Taiwan and antagonistic toward China.

In Trump's formative political years in the 1980s, he was highly critical of Japan and its trade policies, a position which at the time put him in the U.S. protectionist mainstream. He has remained critical of Japan since then, both on trade and for allegedly backsliding on security commitments.

But Trump's real venom is reserved for China, which is America's most challenging economic and security rival in the region. That instinctive focus on China rather than Japan has been reinforced by the team he is assembling for his administration.

Michael Flynn, nominated as national security adviser, has a record of making highly critical statements about China, as does Randall Schriver, a senior State Department official handling Asia during the administration of George W. Bush who is now in line for a new position under Trump.

Schriver is both a protege and business partner of Richard Armitage, a seasoned former Republican official who has long been a strong supporter of closer ties with Japan. As president of the Project 2049 Institute, a Washington think tank supportive of Asian democracies, Schriver has also been a persistent advocate of giving Taiwan greater space in the international community.

If Schriver does end up at the State Department, he would be reporting to Rex Tillerson, the former Exxon Mobil CEO who has been named Trump's secretary of state. In meetings with senators before his confirmation hearing, Tillerson has been highly critical of China's island-building in the South China Sea, according to the Washington Post.

On trade, Trump has chosen two of Beijing's betes noires. Peter Navarro, an author and academic, will head a new trade council inside the White House. His views about Beijing are summed up in the title of his recent book and movie -- "Death by China."

To head the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, Trump has nominated another trenchant critic of Chinese commercial practices: Robert Lighthizer, a Washington lawyer who served in the administration of President Ronald Reagan.

The day-to-day responsibility for Asia at the National Security Council will be in the hands of Matt Pottinger, a former Beijing-based journalist who left China and journalism in 2005. While Schriver hails from traditional Republican foreign policy circles, Pottinger owes his position to Flynn, with whom he worked in Afghanistan, co-authoring a report on reforming military intelligence.

When he left China, Pottinger displayed much of the jaundice that many foreign journalists feel after years on the ground battling the authorities. In his valedictory article for the Wall Street Journal, he recounted being punched in the face at a Starbucks by a government goon trying to stop him from investigating the sale of Chinese nuclear fuel to third countries.

"If China goes into recession," he wrote, "the ruling Communist Party will try to deflect popular attention away from its problems by blaming the United States and Japan."

TRADE WAR Shinzo Abe, Japan's prime minister, has been quick to embrace Trump. But there are several factors that Tokyo, and other Asian capitals, will bear in mind as the Trump administration develops policy. While many regional nations support pressure on China to open its markets to foreign companies, they also know that tightly intertwined supply chains throughout the region would turn a U.S. trade war with China into a trade war with Asia.

How will Beijing respond to a tougher line from the U.S.? Chinese diplomats in Washington are already privately emphasizing the delicate political atmosphere in Beijing this year. The Chinese Communist Party will hold its once-in-five-years party congress around November -- a meeting that will establish the top leadership for the next half decade, and perhaps beyond.

The most sensitive issue this year is the prospect of Trump tampering with, or even ditching, Washington's longstanding "One China" policy, under which the U.S. has formal diplomatic relations with Beijing, but not with Taiwan, which China considers a breakaway province.

At any time, a move by Washington to recalibrate relations with Taiwan would risk a strong Chinese response, aimed at both the U.S. and Taiwan. In 2017, Beijing's reaction could be explosive.

The power of China's military still lags that of the U.S. But China is the region's economic hegemon and putative superpower. Whatever cards Trump plays, Beijing has many options for responding.

Richard McGregor is a Washington-based journalist and the author of "The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers." His book on Sino-Japanese relations and the U.S. is due to be published in September by Viking Press.

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