International Affairs

Trump is playing a risky political game with China and Russia

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A principle taught in international relations is that a rising power could threaten global stability. The example given is Germany prior to World War I and its rapid economic rise challenging England’s dominance. Following that model, if one were to believe Donald Trump’s anti-China rhetoric, a clash with China would seem inevitable.

Globalization had, however, turned the analogy between China and Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany upside down. As today’s rising power, China has been the poster child of an economy interlinked with America and the world. China would appear to be too invested in the system and too economically connected with the world to radically shake up the existing order.

{mosads}The Chinese government’s mandate is based on prosperity. It needs global stability to maintain that prosperity. All the propaganda in the world could not undo the damage to China that would occur by disassociating the Chinese economy from the American economy. Such a detangling would have a disastrous impact on the American economy.

President-elect Trump’s risky flirtation with Taiwan could change the Chinese government’s view of globalization. Culture and historic memory are a potent force and quite often are more powerful than any economic gain.

China and Taiwan both consider themselves the legitimate government of China, an issue supposedly successfully buried in its incongruity 44 years ago by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger.

If the Chinese leadership perceive that their legitimacy is threatened by Trump’s willingness to break historic protocol and publicly interact with Taiwan, then the possibilities of a rivalry between the United States and China similar to the pre-World War I analogy of the United Kingdom and Germany could become acute.

Abetting this potential rivalry is Russia, the true declining power with a gross domestic product now about the size of that of Spain. Russia is the major country that is threatened by the global order and threatening to the global order.

Russia has nothing to lose by trying to reshuffle the deck. What makes the Russian situation more complicated is that on account of its political culture and history, the Moscow perceives the world differently. It sees it in 19th century great game terms.

Russia is the major economy that, beyond a collapsing energy market, has no skin in the globalized game. Just look at this in terms of the United States. Of all the major economic players in the world, the United States has by far the smallest and almost nonexistent trade relationship with Russia.


In 2015, the United States exported approximately $116 billion worth of products to China and imported approximately $482 billion. Although the import numbers from China greatly outweigh the export numbers, they only tell part of the story.

Whether it is Walmart, Apple, Nike, or warehousing Chinese steel in Long Beach, California, there is a vast amount of Americans whose jobs are dependent on China.

In addition, General Motors (GM) and its joint-ventured Chinese factories manufactured and sold more than 3.6 million vehicles in China in 2015, making it GM’s largest market.  China is Apple’s second largest market. Even Hershey Chocolates is now producing in China for the Chinese market.  

In terms of U.S. exports to China, the products range from the approximately 12.3 million bales of cotton exported annually primarily from Texas to Mercedes cars manufactured in Indiana for the Chinese market.

U.S. exports to Russia last year, however, were only $7.1 billion, less than one percent of our total exports. Imports in 2015 from Russia were approximately $16.6 billion. In terms of customers for U.S. products, Russia is about the same size as Thailand.

Russia’s need of spheres of influence and buffer states is in direct conflict with globalization. If a country is economically interlinked around the globe, it does not need spheres of influence for protection.

It is very doubtful that interlinked markets will attack interlinked markets. What Russian leadership doesn’t understand is that the chess game of realpolitik, of pawns in the name of buffer states protecting the queen, is no longer necessary.

The problem, however, is that the United States can now be easily trapped into playing the Russian game. Holding a very weak economic hand, not wanting to change its system from a kleptocracy to a modern economic nation and believing that the projected power of the state is a substitute for democratic legitimacy, Russia sees itself caught between America and China.

In this situation, Putin’s best strategy is to follow the Nixon and Kissinger model, but in reverse. Nixon and Kissinger saw the need to re-establish relations with China; that is, to play the China card as a way to pressure the Soviet Union.

Putin, by placating the new Trump administration, which campaigned on a confrontational relationship with China, could be in a position to play the American card against his economic giant to the east. But for America, this is a fool’s game.

There is no economic or political advantage for America to disassociate itself from China, to allow itself to be manipulated by the economically and politically weak Russia. Quite the opposite and absurdly risky.

Edward Goldberg teaches international political economy at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs. He is also a Scholarly Practitioner at Baruch College’s Zicklin Graduate School of Business, where he specializes in globalization. He is the author of “The Joint Ventured Nation: Why America Needs A New Foreign Policy” (Skyhorse Publishing, October 2016).

The views of Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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