Trump will be more dangerous than the Taiwan Strait in 2024?

Lianhe Zaobao associate editor Han Yong Hong notes that there is a real possibility of Donald Trump getting elected for a second time as US President. If Trump takes office and the US alliance system loosens, China will gain some diplomatic respite. But having engaged with the Trump administration before, China is unlikely to have high expectations for Trump’s China policy.
Former US President Donald Trump speaks to members of the media at New York State Supreme Court in New York, US, on 7 December 2023. (Yuki Iwamura/Bloomberg)
Former US President Donald Trump speaks to members of the media at New York State Supreme Court in New York, US, on 7 December 2023. (Yuki Iwamura/Bloomberg)

The Economist published their annual guide World Ahead 2024 in the 18 November edition of their magazine. In the cover image of the magazine, US President Donald Trump's silhouette shrouds the right half of the globe like an eclipse. It said that in all the time that it has published the guide, no single person has eclipsed their analysis as much as Donald Trump eclipses 2024, adding that “Donald Trump poses the biggest danger to the world in 2024”. 

The Economist has always been adept at setting topics and creating concepts. Two years ago, the cover story described Taiwan as “the most dangerous place on earth”, a line that till now is still quoted frequently. Now, it emphasises that Trump is “the biggest danger”; does it mean that in 2024, Trump will be even more dangerous than the Taiwan Strait? From the report, the answer is yes.

Across the Pacific, Asian societies have not felt the direct impact of the US elections next year and of Trump’s momentum, but the topic is front and centre for US media outlets. Polls and trend analyses keep showing that while Trump is anti-establishment, saddled with lawsuits, and faces criminal charges for his attempt to upend the 2020 elections results, it is definitely no joke that he could reclaim the White House. Many pessimistic predictions see Trump 2.0 as even more destructive to the US establishment than Trump 1.0; the global impact of a US return to isolationism cannot be underestimated.

Difference in reaction

In comparison, while the whole of China is highly focused on China-US relations and follows every move by the US, the American people do not pay as much attention to China. After all, the US has enough problems of its own to worry about. Take the APEC forum in November and the meeting between the leaders of China and the US in San Francisco; there was not much discussion in the US about it.

But if Trump were to return to power, it would be a very real concern for the Americans. Trump is already leading the Republican primaries. In a survey released in late November, the Economist and polling agency YouGov found that 51% of respondents thought Trump outperformed Biden during his time in office; only 41% felt that Biden performed better.

... Trump publicly declared that if elected, he would dismantle the “deep state”, which includes national security and intelligence services, and vowed “retribution” for his political enemies.

 People watch the second 2020 presidential campaign debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump at The Abbey Bar in West Hollywood, California, US, 22 October 2020. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)
People watch the second 2020 presidential campaign debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump at The Abbey Bar in West Hollywood, California, US, on 22 October 2020. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

A poll by the New York Times in early November also showed that there was more support for Trump in five out of six swing states. Worse, Democratic consulting agencies found that among African Americans, Latin Americans, Asians, sexual minority groups, Gen Z, millennials, single female high school graduates — which are traditional Democrat bases — respondents were generally more supportive of Trump. By their recollection, the US economy, inflation issue, crime rate, as well as border security were all better under Trump, and the Democrats were more ideologically extreme than the Republicans.

What will Trump do?

What will Trump do if he returns to the White House? He has made no bones about this and what he plans to do is mind-boggling.   

In spring of this year, Trump publicly declared that if elected, he would dismantle the “deep state”, which includes national security and intelligence services, and vowed “retribution” for his political enemies. Trump’s allies and the so-called MAGA (Make America Great Again) Republicans plan to reinstitute the “Schedule F” executive order introduced at the end of Trump’s administration, which would make up to 50,000 federal employees easier to fire, allowing Trump to replace them with his loyalists.

American media has reported that MAGA Republicans are already preparing a list of loyalists. They issued a 1,000-page policy document that included the completion of the border wall; a 10% tariff on all goods imported into the US; permanent tax cuts; and ending birthright citizenship for children of immigrants living in the US. With the experience of his first term, Trump and his team will be more mature and methodical in deploying their anti-establishment moves.  

Trump has often compared Taiwan to the tip of his Sharpie pen and China to his Resolute desk, showing that Trump, a businessman by nature, is more likely than Biden to trade off Taiwan.

Supporters of Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump during a campaign event on 11 November 2023 in Claremont, New Hampshire, US. (Scott Eisen/Getty Images/AFP)
Supporters of Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump during a campaign event on 11 November 2023 in Claremont, New Hampshire, US. (Scott Eisen/Getty Images/AFP)

In terms of international policy, it was reported that Trump had privately said that he wanted to withdraw the US from NATO if he is elected president, and that he may also scale back military aid to Ukraine. As for the Taiwan Strait situation, notwithstanding tense relations with Beijing, Trump has often compared Taiwan to the tip of his Sharpie pen and China to his Resolute desk, showing that Trump, a businessman by nature, is more likely than Biden to trade off Taiwan.

Effect on China and elsewhere

Trump’s potential comeback is a nightmare for Western liberal elites. In addition to destroying the American order, Trump is essentially allowing China and other ideological rivals to “pick up weapons” and gain evidence to prove that American democracy has failed; it would also undo the Biden administration’s efforts in roping in Asian countries and strengthening the US international alliance system.

These concerns are valid, and US allies and adversaries are seriously evaluating the possibility of a Trump 2.0 and even making plans to respond to it. More countries will also refrain from choosing sides to avoid being caught in a passive position amid turbulent times.

... having engaged with the Trump administration before, China is unlikely to have high expectations for Trump’s China policy.

Supporters arrive at the venue as former US President Donald Trump is set to deliver remarks at The Ted Hendricks Stadium at Henry Milander Park on 8 November 2023 in Hialeah, Florida, US. (Alon Skuy/Getty Images/AFP)
Supporters arrive at the venue as former US President Donald Trump is set to deliver remarks at The Ted Hendricks Stadium at Henry Milander Park on 8 November 2023 in Hialeah, Florida, US. (Alon Skuy/Getty Images/AFP)

Analysts think that China is quietly watching how the situation develops and waiting for the US to make a mistake. If Trump takes office and the US alliance system loosens, China will gain some diplomatic respite. But having engaged with the Trump administration before, China is unlikely to have high expectations for Trump’s China policy.

While The Economist described Trump as the “biggest danger”, the fact is that today’s world is full of dangers. The magazine called the Taiwan Strait the “most dangerous place on Earth”, but there has been no fighting; yet the Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Hamas wars have broken out.

Amid turbulent times, perhaps countries need to maintain their composure and avoid making mistakes. Whoever can avoid making mistakes, not be led by the external situation, and not allow friends or foes to define their own policies, whilst concentrating on their own development, will have a better chance of achieving goals and gaining peace and prosperity.  

This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “特朗普阴影笼罩2024年”.

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