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Saturday, February 11, 2017
Trump, China, and the Middle East, by Roie Yellinek 

Trump, China, and the Middle East
By Roie Yellinek, February 7, 2017
BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 408, February 7, 2017

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Donald Trump was intensely critical of China throughout
his campaign, and tension between the two countries is likely to increase
now that he occupies the White House – but only in the economic and
diplomatic spheres. The Middle East, including Israel, could nevertheless be
drawn into the conflict as a confrontation zone between the superpowers due
to the region's natural resources, intersecting sea routes, and overall
geostrategic importance.

Ever since Donald Trump won the US presidential race, the issue of US-China
relations has been high on the agenda of both parties. The subject
preoccupies the president more than Islamic terror, Vladimir Putin, and
other more pressing issues facing the world. This should not be surprising.
Throughout the campaign, Trump pointed his finger time and again at China.
His attacks often occurred during speeches in declining, heavy-industrial
cities in the "Rust Belt" states, where he subsequently achieved unexpected

Trump's position is based on the loss of 2-2.4 million American jobs between
1999 and 2011 that he claims were stolen by the Chinese. This occurred, he
states, because of the transfer to China of many companies and factories
that used to operate on US soil. This transfer is interpreted by Trump as an
act of plunder. The lack of international monitoring of the yuan is another
element of his case against China: Chinese exporters can gain an advantage
over their competitors from other countries due to the Chinese government's
control over its official currency rate, which does not relate to
international rates.

After the election, disagreements quickly began to emerge between Trump and
the Chinese leadership.

On December 3, 2016, Trump took a phone call from Taiwanese President Tsai
Ing-wen. The call reportedly lasted only ten minutes, but its importance was
not in its length or even its content. Since 1979, when US President Jimmy
Carter transferred the US embassy from Taipei, capital of Taiwan, to
Beijing, capital of China, no conversation between the American and
Taiwanese heads of state has been documented.

Though this suggests a lack of contact, the two countries do have a
relationship, as Trump pointed out via Twitter: "Interesting how the US
sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not
accept a congratulatory call." Over the years, the US has indeed sold – and
continues to sell – billions of dollars’ worth of weapons to Taiwan. Their
extensive bilateral trade reaches tens of billions annually (US$86.9 billion
in 2015). In addition, the US safeguards the security of Taiwan and the
integrity of its democratic government against all external threats,
including repeated threats from Beijing.

The phone call was not the end of it. A series of tweets by Trump, and
responses to them published in government-owned Chinese newspapers, extended
the altercation. So did the confiscation by Chinese forces of an unmanned
underwater US vessel cruising in international waters in the South China

On December 22, 2016, US authorities announced that the online shopping site
Tao-bao, belonging to the giant Chinese company Alibaba, is being returned
to the American blacklist of "questionable" businesses that allegedly sell
counterfeit goods after having been removed from the list in 2012. Tao-bao's
spokesperson expressed regret over the decision, and wondered whether it was
the product of the tense political atmosphere between the two countries.
Trump announced the same day that economist Peter Navarro, who takes a tough
stand with China on trade issues, will be appointed head of the new trade
council to be set up in the White House.

On January 3, 2017, in response to North Korea's claim that it was on the
verge of developing a nuclear weapon that could target the US, Trump
tweeted, "won't happen!" He then added, "China has been taking out massive
amounts of money and wealth from the US in totally one-sided trade, but
won't help with North Korea. Nice!" In response, Xinhua News (China's
official press agency) published an article attacking Trump's "addiction to
Twitter" and claiming that his tweeting is breaking with longstanding
diplomatic protocols.

Is the struggle between China and the US likely to continue? Yes, but it
will probably focus on economic and diplomatic issues and is unlikely to
result in violence or the outbreak of war. The parties are the world's two
largest markets and one other's main trading partners. They have too much to
lose and not enough to gain from war, a fact they both seem to appreciate.

As far as the Middle East and Israel are concerned, Trump will need time to
become acquainted with all the issues related to China, the Middle East, and
their relations with the US. Significant events are thus unlikely to occur
in the coming months. In the more distant future, if the parties choose to
continue delivering verbal blows to one another, the Middle East and Israel
might find themselves at the center of attention.

The US and China might want to determine their balance of power by using the
Middle East as a testing arena. Thus, the new US administration might, for
instance, announce that it will henceforth cease to secure international
shipping routes unless a fee is paid, or will ensure the security of only
the US Navy. Such declarations would result in a rapid increase in oil, gas,
and maritime transport prices to a degree that might prompt activity
shutdowns. This would be particularly hard on China as it would paralyze its
local economy. The Middle East, where the world's largest oil and gas
reserves are located, might find itself dragged into chaos in the wake of
such announcements.

During his campaign, Trump made clear his conviction that any US action
abroad should come with a price tag. If he repeats such statements now that
he is in office, pro-American actors, including Israel and US allies in the
vicinity of China, might be weakened. China's power over its rivals would be
strengthened, since those rivals would be rendered defenseless by an
American distancing.

An announcement along these lines might also force China's allies to demand
ever more insistently that Beijing assure them that it will intervene on
their behalf if necessary. However, China has consistently refrained from
intervening in foreign countries, and it is difficult to imagine the Chinese
leadership changing this stance because of one declaration by an American

Major-General Jin Yinan, one of the most prominent Chinese military
strategists, commented that "Trump may be good for US-Sino relations if he
focused on his promise to 'make America great again' rather than interfere
through foreign policy as other presidents had. He may not even be as
interfering as Hillary Clinton would have been likely to be." And perhaps it
will be good for relations between the US and the Middle East, including
Israel, if each side sticks to its own affairs.
Roie Yellinek is a doctoral student in the department of Middle East studies
at Bar-Ilan University.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the
Greg Rosshandler Family

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