In this series, GTR compares the two US presidential hopefuls’ campaign promises on trade-related topics, and evaluates how likely these promises are to be fulfilled.

At first glance, when it comes to US-China relations, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s views could appear similar. Both, for example, have talked about the possibility of introducing an import tariff on Chinese goods to combat “currency manipulation”.

But looking closer, it becomes evident that the evolution of relations between the US and China would be very different depending on who wins the election this November.


Clinton: firm but diplomatic

Hillary Clinton and China have a history: as secretary of state, the Democratic candidate was President Obama’s first representative in negotiating the US’ “pivot to Asia”, the cornerstone of which was the 12-nation, China-excluding Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

In her career, she has taken a few stands against China, sometimes even in disagreement with Obama. These have ranged from stating that “women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights” at the 1995 World Conference on Women in Beijing (a comment that wasn’t broadcast in China), to granting refuge at the US embassy and later, asylum in the US, to Chinese activist Chen Guangchen in 2012.

In 2010, she started publicly condemning China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, a stance she has maintained throughout her presidential campaign.

Many experts expect her to be more vocal than Obama on human rights violations and territorial claims by China, but overall, she is likely to continue down the path started by the Obama administration. Moreover, Clinton’s years of experience in diplomacy makes any direct confrontation unlikely.

“There’s a very high likelihood she would follow the Obama policy to put implicit but not explicit pressure on China to revise its currency upwards so that she doesn’t have to label it as a currency manipulator and go down the track of imposing sanctions,” John Raines, US political analyst at IHS Markit, tells GTR.


Trump: labels and sanctions

Compared to Clinton, Donald Trump has been very quiet on human rights and the South China Sea dispute. He’s also criticised some of the US alliances in Asia, promising to drastically reduce US support for South Korea and Japan, which could help China grow its influence in the region. This suggests that Trump has little intention to meddle in Asian political affairs, as long as China’s rise in influence remains limited to the region (he has pledged to increase military presence in the East and South China Sea to “discourage Chinese adventurism”).

However, on the trade side, he has promised to officially declare China a “currency manipulator” as soon as he is sworn in, and plans to force China to uphold intellectual property laws and “stop their unfair and unlawful practice of forcing US companies to share proprietary technology with Chinese competitors as a condition of entry to China’s market”.

As part of this strategy, Trump has threatened the implementation of a no less than 45% import tariff on Chinese goods, which would dramatically affect US-China trade.

Raines explains: “Trump is far more likely to go down that road. The next time that the Treasury has to report on [the currency practices of America’s major trading partners, a semi-annual report], you would expect that Trump would have heavy pressure to go ahead and label China a currency manipulator and then evaluate the process of imposing new tariffs.

“By the time you’re the president you have to worry about the prospect of initiating some type of trade war, so there’s a moderating effect there for him to be able to back-track on the more stringent tariffs that he’s mentioned as possibilities. But I do think that new tariffs on China are possible.”


Rise in WTO disputes

No matter who becomes president, Raines expects a rise in anti-dumping cases brought by the US against China, though “probably much more so under Trump”.

“It is certainly a path that Trump will want to go down, especially because it’s relatively non-controversial. Unlike tariffs which could possibly precipitate some type of tariff war or domestic reaction, it’s very easy to privilege domestic interest by bringing case after case after case,” he says.