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Nayan Chanda

Nayan Chanda is the author of Bound Together: How Traders, Preachers, Adventurers and Warriors Shaped Globalization and is Consulting Editor of YaleGlobal Online, published by the MacMillan Center, Yale University.

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A Strange American Election

The rise of Donald Trump as a presidential nominee and support for him in Russia and China make this year’s US polls an unusual one

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American presidential elections are among the world’s highest-stakes political contests, and command a global audience. With increasingly close economic integration, the US election results affect not only the political fortune of one country, but the world’s markets hold their collective breath as the votes are counted. Thanks to the unprecedented rise of an ignorant, blowhard reality TV star as one of the contestants, the world’s curiosity about this year’s election is mixed with great anxiety. Concerns reached such a level that even the first televised debate between the Republican and Democratic nominees impacted stock markets. The Mexican peso, which had been losing value against the backdrop of Donald Trump’s campaign against illegal immigration, got a shot in the arm — gaining two per cent against the US dollar — when Hillary Clinton’s verbal jabs seemed to dampen (albeit momentarily) Trump’s prospects.

The unusual nature of this year’s election is also apparent in Trump’s favourable ratings in Russia and China, America’s two top international rivals. The Republican nominee has repeatedly expressed his admiration for the ‘strong’ leadership of Vladimir Putin, comparing him with the ‘weak’ Obama. Hackers believed to be Russian have hacked into Democratic Party servers and leaked emails likely to embarrass Clinton. Trump has even expressed approval for the likes of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein (who he believes was good at ‘killing terrorists’) and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, for their ruthless style of governance. During the first presidential debate, though he slammed the Obama administration for failing to restrain North Korea, which conducted its fifth nuclear test recently. He urged that “China should go into North Korea”, because as he put it, “China is totally powerful as it relates to North Korea.”

While Trump has had only praise for Russia, he has been a harsh critic of China holding it responsible for the US economic decline and accusing it of “using our country as a piggy bank to rebuild China...” and threatened to impose 45 per cent tariff. “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive,” he had tweeted in 2012 although during the debate he flatly denied having said that.

Interestingly, his relatively rough words against China do not seem to have hurt his standing there. Instead, China maintains its deep antipathy towards Clinton, who has long criticised Beijing for its human rights violations and since 2010 played a leading role in organising opposition to China’s aggressive policy in the East and South China Sea. China seems to believe that foreign policy neophyte Trump could easily be won over with some economic concessions, which could be packaged as a triumph of Trump’s self-proclaimed negotiating skills.

Given his isolationist inclinations and “pay to play” approach to military alliances, China can well hope that a President Trump would be inclined to be disengaged in the contest over the South China Sea and Beijing’s tussle with Japan over the Senkaku/ Diaoyu islands. It is thus not surprising that Global Times, an ultra-nationalist paper owned by the Communist Party, announced that “many Chinese prefer Trump”, citing a rather dubious opinion poll showing that 83 per cent of respondents “believe Trump will win the election”. Apart from the risible irony of holding such a poll in a one-party political system, where the Communist Party has brutally maintained its stranglehold on power for nearly seven decades, Chinese support for an authoritarian leader is a great indicator of the very unusual nature of this year’s US elections. It is time to tighten one’s seat belts and keep fingers firmly crossed.

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magazine 17 october 2016 columns donald trump russia china