For all the talk about Russia meddling in the last US presidential election, it’s China that might be benefiting the most from the fact that Donald Trump is in the White House.
The change in administrations from Obama to Trump has coincided with a number of positive developments for China — both within the country itself and in terms of its standing in the world. For two decades, there has been a belief in the foreign policy community that the United States and China would eventually face off as two global powers. However, with Trump rejecting a global outlook on politics, an emerging China is finding that the United States is not standing in its way.
Here are three specific ways China has benefited under Trump:
1. The country has greatly expanded its presence in the South China Sea
During Trump’s 12-day trip to Asia, the president was largely focused on developments in North Korea and on trade agreements. China, meanwhile, was, as Foreign Policy magazine put it: “pressing ahead with its agenda in one of the world’s most strategic waterways, building more military facilities on man-made islands to buttress its expansionist claims, and dramatically expanding its presence at sea at the expense of its smaller neighbors.”
This matters because the South China Sea is one of the most important waterways in the world when it comes to international trade because so many ships pass through it. At the same time, it’s hugely important on a military level. If China can control those waters, it’s at a strategic advantage over Asian rivals and can help stop an attempt by Taiwan to assert its independence.
During the Obama administration, the United States and other Asian nations raised red flags about China’s activities in the region. Those were international waters, the argument went, and therefore should have been off limits for one country to claim ownership over.
Trump, on the other hand, seems to hardly have paid attention to the South China Sea. He’s barely addressed it in any public format and his tweets on China in the wake of his trip seem more focused on the UCLA basketball players caught shoplifting in that country.
The less Trump pays attention, the more China has the freedom to keep pushing its agenda in waters off its coast.
2. China has been unchallenged in its pursuit to become a bigger economic player
As one of his first acts as president, Trump had the United States officially walk away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a major Asian trade deal that would have solidified the United States as the biggest player in Asia. Instead, China has created its own deal with Asian-Pacific countries, including Japan, India, and South Korea.
On a more macro level, as America looks to focus on trade deals with specific countries instead of leading big multinational ones, and as Trump advisers preach against “globalists,” China is hoping to slide into more of an economic leadership role around the world.
3. Without the United States criticizing China on human rights, the matter goes unchecked
One thing that recent Republican and Democratic administrations had in common was an unified intolerance for China’s human rights abuses. Nearly every trade deal and every meeting with Chinese leaders was accompanied by the requisite finger wagging about their political prisoners and deep restrictions on free speech, especially on the Web.
Trump, by contrast, has not engaged. On his recent trip, he never publicly mentioned the issues nor confronted President Xi.
How does that help China? Because if no one is monitoring the Communist Party’s behavior, the country probably has less backlash to contend with. And the less they have to pay attention to domestic issues, the more they can focus on the global stage.James Pindell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter on politics: http://pages.email.bostonglobe.com/GroundGameSignUp.