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China's Trumpian nightmare

In the pre-Trump age, predicting America's China policy used to be straightforward. As a rule, Republicans would favor free trade but support hardline military postures toward China, a perennial security threat. Democrats, by contrast, would call for protectionist measures and a tougher human rights policy, but display little enthusiasm for treating China as a geopolitical adversary. Obviously, neither party espoused the policy preferred by Beijing.

In an ideal world for Beijing, Washington's China policy would focus exclusively on their bilateral commercial ties and stay away from contentious issues such as human rights and security in East Asia. In the real, post-Cold War world, however, they have had to live with the China policy made in Washington. To be sure, the policy mixture has not been to its liking. But over the years, Chinese leaders have gradually learned to read -- and deal with -- their American counterparts, Republicans and Democrats alike.

This year's American presidential election is completely different. There seems a complete role reversal, mainly because the Republican running for the White House is Donald Trump. If the real estate magnate proves the pollsters wrong and gets into the White House, his foreign policy in general, and his China policy in particular -- based on what he has said about China and East Asia so far -- would be a combination of protectionism and isolationism.

By contrast, Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential candidate, has avoided stridently protectionist rhetoric, although she has indicated she no longer supports the planned Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact unless it is substantially revised. As a known hawk, Clinton is backing President Barack Obama's pivot to Asia, a strategic shift of American national security focus aimed at countering China's growing geopolitical clout in Asia.

For Beijing, choosing between a Trumpian China policy and its Clintonian version is akin to picking the lesser poison. But if President Xi Jinping has to make a decision, there is little doubt that he would prefer to deal with Clinton rather than Trump.

The simplest reason for making such a choice is that, as risk-averse pragmatists in foreign affairs, Chinese leaders have always preferred the devil they know. Indeed, Trump literally called Clinton the "devil" in the second presidential debate on Sunday night.

By this standard, Clinton is someone Chinese leaders have known for more than two decades. Even more importantly, her foreign policy would be a continuation of the status quo. There are certain elements in Clinton's China policy that Beijing does not like. For instance, she will likely embrace a more hawkish security posture toward Beijing. That could mean an acceleration of Washington's Asia pivot which was actually conceived by Clinton while she was secretary of state. In the South China Sea, we may expect a firmer U.S. diplomatic and military response to Chinese expansionism.

Elsewhere in Asia, Clinton is also expected to intensify America's strategic engagement with countries unnerved by the rise of Chinese power and Beijing's willingness to flaunt it. Two countries in particular, India and Vietnam, are likely to be the center of American strategic attention. Both have fought wars and continue to have territorial disputes with China, making them natural allies for the U.S. As senator and secretary of state, Clinton championed the improvement of American-Indian and American-Vietnamese ties. Under her presidency, these two sets of relations are almost certain to receive a boost, a development that Beijing would see as part of American containment strategy.

On the trade front, Beijing should not expect a free ride from a Clinton White House, either. Even though she is unlikely to embrace dangerous protectionist measures, Clinton will likely step up enforcement actions targeting Chinese practices that violate World Trade Organization rules and American trade laws. As for human rights, Clinton could also show greater firmness toward Beijing. Despite the lack of real leverage, a Clinton administration could embarrass Beijing with louder diplomatic criticisms.

Cold comfort

If this list looks unappealing, Beijing can at least draw some comfort from the fact that, although Clinton may take a harder line on China than Obama, she is at heart an experienced, incremental pragmatist.

The same cannot be said of Trump. To be sure, the rise of Trump and the low to which the American democratic process has sunk -- culminating in the latest revelations about his vulgar remarks about women in leaked recordings -- have been a propaganda bonanza for the Chinese Communist Party, which has wasted little time telling the Chinese public that democracy is nothing but a farce. In addition, as cynical Leninists (the late Bolshevik leader famously said that capitalists would sell you the rope with which to hang yourself), Chinese leaders have always had a soft spot for American tycoons, who, they correctly believe, care more about making a fast buck than anything else.

Unfortunately, Trump appears to be in an entirely different league. The two public positions he has taken -- protectionism and isolationism -- would likely cause enormous damage to Chinese economic and security interests when implemented as policy.

If, as he has promised, Trump unilaterally imposes trade sanctions on China in violation of WTO rules, China will undoubtedly retaliate. While the resulting trade war could hurt the U.S., China would suffer even more. On top of this, the timing could not have been worse. The Chinese economy is much more fragile than the American economy. Weighed down by a mountain of debt, growth deceleration in China has no end in sight. A trade war with the U.S. could trigger an outright recession and renewed capital flight.

For some observers, a Trump presidency may not be all bad news for China. In particular, they point to Trump's talk about withdrawing American military forces from Asia and letting Japan and South Korea fend for themselves by, among other things, developing nuclear weapons. In such a scenario, America's pivot to Asia would be no more, giving China a completely free hand in dominating the region.

But those dreaming of China's primacy in Asia must think again. In the event of an American exit from the region, Japan and South Korea will certainly acquire nuclear weapons and significantly expand their military arsenal. Vietnam, Indonesia, and India will not sit idly by either. Instead of dominating Asia, China could find itself living in a far more dangerous neighborhood.

For Beijing, the worst part about a Trump presidency is not the danger of his announced policy intentions (although they are bad enough), but the impulsiveness and unpredictability of the man himself. If Chinese leaders have watched the two presidential debates and kept track of Trump's outbursts and erratic behavior throughout the campaign, they can be forgiven for wondering how in the world such a man is just a step away from the Oval Office. If he could get up at 3am to tweet his rage against a beauty queen, there is no telling what he might do if he feels that he must get even with the Chinese.

As he watches the American presidential election draw closer to its denouement, Xi might want to place a call to his friend Russian President Vladimir Putin and gently urge him to rethink his enthusiasm for Trump. He may be God's gift to the Kremlin, but a nightmare for Zhongnanhai.

Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and the author of "China's Crony Capitalism" (Harvard 2016).

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