China shouldn’t celebrate if Donald Trump loses his border wall battle – his successor may be even harder on Beijing

(Originally published here by South China Morning Post.)

Of all of the cuts Donald Trump has invited by declaring a national emergency to fund a border wall between the United States and MexicoThe Wall Street Journal’s might be the deepest.

Citing former US Supreme Court chief justice Robert Jackson, the newspaper’s editorial board pointed out that “a president’s power is ‘at its lowest ebb’ when ‘the President takes measures incompatible with the expressed or implied will of Congress’,” and called Trump’s history as president “blinkered”.

While Washington infighting usually strengthens Beijing’s portrayal of American democracy as a mess, this particular battle may end up not working in China’s favour.

The Journal’s opinion page has cheered Trump for his tax cuts and thrown scepticism on special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into connections between Trump’s associates and Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. But Trump’s national emergency gambit was too much for a newspaper that speaks for the traditional, pro-business heart of the Republican Party, a constituency that relies on the labour that immigrants supply.

The most deplorable elements of Trump’s base – those who laud his characterisation of Latin American immigrants as criminals and rapists – see a border wall as the most sensible way to make America safe. Never mind that violent crime in the US has very little to do with immigrants.

With an approval rating that has held firm in spite of predictions that Americans would tire of his targeted acts of cruelty and casual, knee-jerk nastiness, Trump sees no need to stop short of breaking precedent. While past presidents have invoked emergency powers, none has done so to circumvent the will of Congress. That may have put Trump’s move beyond the pale.

As reported by Politico, Representative Mike Turner of Ohio, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, called Trump’s move a “dangerous precedent” and warned that “securing our border should not be done at the expense of previously funded military construction projects.”

Turner and four other House Republicans – Richard Hudson of North Carolina, Tom Cole of Oklahoma, Chris Collins of New York and Doug Lamborn of Colorado – warned Trump against siphoning off military construction funds in a letter last week, citing “ageing infrastructure challenges which undermine the readiness and lethality” of the military, according to Politico.

With more congressional Republicans now protesting Trump’s power grab, those who have despised the president all along have more reason to feel hopeful that Trump won’t get a second term. Trump’s crusade to physically separate the US from Mexico will become a series of legal battles that will extend into the next election, defining Trump as a candidate whose signature issue is one that a plethora of polls show a majority of Americans don’t agree with. And Republicans will be hard-pressed to come up with a candidate not tainted by Trump.

China’s leaders should watch this space closely because the showdown over Trump’s emergency declaration could leave Beijing in a tougher position with respect to its dealings with Washington.

If any political objective will outlive Trump’s administration, it’s the resolve to maintain a hard line against Beijing, which can no longer rely on any pro-engagement “China hands” in Washington arguing in favour of giving China more latitude in its transition to a market economy.

That reality came into focus with last week’s release of a report by a task force led by Orville Schell of the Asia Society’s Centre on US-China Relations and former US deputy assistant secretary of state Susan Shirk, calling for a harder line against China on all fronts.

“The Chinese government’s recent policies and actions are increasingly at odds with the interests and values of the United States”, Shirk said in panel discussions in Washington and New York last week.

“This is not just [because of] China’s growing strength, but it’s the matter of the specific choices China’s decision-makers have made over the past decade,” she said.

“Chinese mercantilism [and its] zero-sum policies have advantaged Chinese firms at the expense of international competitors to build their national strength, especially their very lavishly funded state-led effort to build China into a hi-tech superpower.”

While Washington’s China hands have come around to a need for a harder line against Beijing, they don’t share Trump’s fondness for autocrats like Xi Jinping, who openly disparage the basic tenets of liberal democracies. They are also likely to repair the rifts that Trump has torn between the US and its traditional economic and strategic allies, which would cause more headaches for China.

So if the current fallout over Trump’s national emergency helps to usher him out of office in 2020, Beijing will have a tougher fight on its hands.

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