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Opinion
One Year On
A year after taking office, the Trump presidency is struggling to operate at home and abroad
By An Gang | NO.7 FEBRUARY 15, 2018

U.S. President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. on January 30 (XINHUA)

'Our new administration had already taken swift action. A new tide of optimism was already sweeping across our land," U.S. President Donald Trump announced in his first State of the Union address on January 30. Outlining plans "to build a safe, strong and proud America," Trump reviewed the accomplishments of his first year in office, which, according to him, include promoting fair trade, fixing immigration laws, conducting tax reform, combating terrorism and successful diplomacy.

A new American moment

Trump placed particular emphasis on his administration's contributions to the recovery of the U.S. economy through slashing tax rates and wiping out regulations, announcing that since his election, 2.4 million new jobs have been created, the business tax rate has been cut from 35 percent to 21 percent and unemployment has hit a 45-year low. "After years of wage stagnation, we are finally seeing rising wages," he said.

He took the opportunity to primarily market his designs for immigration reform and infrastructure. According to the new immigration reform plan, illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. by their parents at a young age will be able to become full citizens, while the systems of immigration lottery and chain migration are to be ended. He also called on Congress to approve $1.5 trillion for new infrastructure investment.

Having reviewed "unfair" trade deals, Trump declared that "the era of economic surrender is over," and revealed his administration's intent to fix "bad" trade deals and negotiate new ones.

He highlighted the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel as the

zenith of Trumpian diplomacy, alongside his resolution in efforts to thwart North Korea's nuclear ambitions. The president said he would not repeat the mistakes of past administrations because their "complacency and concessions only invite aggression and provocation." Presumably that means that the U.S. will continue to overlook the thawing of ties between the two Koreas as the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics approach, and instead maintain "maximum pressure" on North Korea.

Trump is also trying to present his administration as one responsible for the revitalization of American values, stressing the Christian flavor of U.S. society and inviting the 12-year-old boy who started a movement by placing flags on veterans' graves to present at the speech, aiming to counter liberalism through extravagant displays of patriotism.

Although Trump is an unconventional president elected unexpectedly in 2016, some people have tried to portray him as diligent, vigorous and resolute, showing a strong ability to learn and adapt to Washington politics.

Before delivering the State of the Union address, Trump attended the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, making a speech. He claimed that America First does not mean America alone, and seemed to be suggesting that under certain conditions, the U.S. is preparing to return to the fray of international affairs, especially in the reform of international trade systems. His speech was seen by some as a signal that the U.S. might be willing to return to the negotiating table over the Trans-Pacific Partnership multilateral trade deal.

In entering his second year in office, Trump has evolved from a green hand immersed in divisive campaign sentiment and solely focused on negating Obama-era policies to a political leader more closely aligned with the Republican establishment and one accordingly more professional in conduct.

However, his achievements in his first year in office are not all of his own making. Recovery in the American economy has been accelerating with the growth rate for 2017 expected to be 2.5 percent, but this performance is largely the lasting effect of eight years of economic stimulus by the Obama administration.

In March last year, Trump encountered his biggest frustration since taking office, relinquishing plans to abolish Obamacare after he was unable to get the vote through Congress. This reality indicated that the Republicans did not have a suitable replacement in place. It also highlighted that Trump is not a conventional republican and therefore cannot use the Republicans' superior numbers in both Congress and the White House to his administration's advantage.

An evolving figure

During the first year of his presidency, Trump relied too heavily on a small circle of advisers made up of military personnel, family members and supporters of the alt-right, governing the country by bypassing Congress. He failed to win over the mainstream media and instead resorted to frequent tweets as a means of communicating with his supporters, defending his opinions and setting agendas.

But following intense internal competition, the distribution of power in the Trump inner circle has changed; the influence of military personnel has increased, while the sway of family members has dropped away, with the power of the alt-right almost totally squeezed out. The final result is compromise and coexistence between Trump and the Republican establishment. This new-look administration might be able to attain relative stability, but is still unlikely to adopt any policy aimed at unifying the alienated sides of society and politics in the U.S.

There are still many difficulties ahead for Trump in the next few years of his presidency. His administrative team remains understaffed, while the Russia scandal continues to crop up. Tax reform might stimulate more capital to return into the U.S. in the short term, but it will increase the debt burden in the long run, while a strict immigration policy might ultimately limit the vitality of the labor force and affect the long-term performance of the economy.

In the mid-term elections toward the end of this year, the Republicans are expected to retain their supremacy in the Senate, but it remains a possibility that the party will lose its majority in the House of Representatives. On December 12 last year, Democrat Doug Jones defeated Republican Roy Moore to become Alabama's senator, while senior Republican Senator John McCain took sick leave due to a brain tumor. Currently, the Republicans hold 50 seats in the Senate and the Democrats hold 49. If just one Republican senator defects, the Democrats will be able to take control of the legislative process. In such a scenario, Trump will have become a lame duck way ahead of schedule.

Trump has vowed to push the modernization of national defense and rebuild the U.S. nuclear arsenal, but such pursuits are in conflict with the financial pressures brought about by the cutting of taxes. The quandary over whether to use force against North Korea also looks set to deepen, with Trump opposed to another meaningless conflict overseas on the one hand, but determined to show strength against North Korea on the other.

In the past year, Trump has withdrawn from certain international agreements, pushed forward protectionism and mercantilism, and approached diplomacy with a Cold War mentality. These performances have seriously damaged U.S. soft power and leadership while fueling instability and polarization in both the Middle East and Asia-Pacific region. Fundamentally, the world still distrusts Trump's trade and security policies.

While Trump may have proudly announced that the U.S. is rebuilding its national strength and confidence, and restoring its international influence, for America, the reality is far from so optimistic. Trump is unlikely to have an easier ride this year than last and might even experience more severe tests of his political experience and policy expertise.

Rivalry with China

"Around the world, we face rogue regimes, terrorist groups, and rivals like China and Russia that challenge our interests, our economy, and our values," Trump said in his State of the Union address. The Trump administration had previously released the National Security Strategy on December 18, 2017, and the National Defense Strategy on January 21, in which China was named a "strategic competitor." Trump also said "whether we like it or not, we are engaged in a new era of competition" in a speech outlining the national security strategy in Washington, D.C. on December 18, 2017.

The U.S. adjustment of its China policy to focus on competition is closely connected to China's rapid economic growth. China's GDP has doubled in just seven years to reach $12.65 trillion in 2017, two thirds that of the U.S. which currently stands at $19.39 trillion. This places the U.S. under unprecedented pressure and has proven a powerful awakening from illusions of its own unparalleled grandeur. It is from this insecurity that the adjustment of the U.S. China policy has sprung.

In the first year of Trump's presidency, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Trump exchanged state visits and the two countries cooperated over the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula.

However, the Trump administration has characterized China as a "strategic competitor," launched an investigation under Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974 over intellectual property issues and threatened to implement large-scale punishments against China over its alleged "violation of U.S. intellectual property rights." Moreover, some clauses in the U.S. National Defense Authorization Act for the 2018 fiscal year authorize the possibility of mutual visits by navy vessels between the U.S. and China's Taiwan, which is strongly opposed by the Chinese Government, as such actions would be in serious violation of the one-China policy. China's trust in the U.S. has declined and bilateral ties look set to enter a period with many bumps in the road.

China and the U.S. are both fundamental to the global economic system and their interests are deeply intertwined. The Trump administration's adjustment of its focus toward economic growth will require China's cooperation and support. The U.S. has proven itself unable to summon enough power to completely contain China, and so it can only deal with China within the framework of coexistence and cooperation.

Although competition between China and the U.S. cannot be avoided, the two countries should nonetheless make efforts to ensure that any such competition is healthy. If China and the U.S. can successfully circumvent confrontation, then they can maintain cooperation and achieve mutual progress through a healthy rivalry, which could see great contributions toward not only the development of science and technology, but also the civilization of mankind.

The author is an op-ed contributor to Beijing Review and a researcher at the Pangoal Insitution

Copyedited by Laurence Coulton

Comments to yulintao@bjreview.com

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