The departure from the White House of Steve Bannon, one of China’s strongest critics within the Trump administration, is likely to provide only temporary relief to Beijing, China foreign policy analysts say.
Mr Bannon warned shortly before he was ousted on Friday that the US and China were locked in an existential battle for domination of the global economy, telling The American Prospect that the US should be “maniacally focused” on that “economic war” with China.
Despite the exit of one of US president Donald Trump’s most outspoken nationalist advisers, the Trump administration went ahead on Friday with the formal launch of an investigation into allegations of Chinese intellectual property theft.
The Global Times, a tabloid newspaper that is owned by the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist party, argued in an editorial on Saturday that Mr Bannon’s “toxic legacy” when it comes to China should leave the White House with him.
“It is sincerely hoped that Bannon’s departure is more than just a symbolic exit,” it said. “It should hopefully allow people to feel reassured that the strategic mindset of the Trump administration is hitting an inflection point.”
But analysts argued that any respite would be temporary.
“It may be good for China in the short run but it won’t have a profound impact in the long run because he’s just one person and Trump has the final say,” said Chen Dingding, a professor of international relations at Jinan University in Guangzhou.
While some analysts have argued that Beijing can take advantage of Mr Trump’s transactional approach to politics and his diminution of the traditional foreign policy establishment, Professor Chen said that the high turnover among the President’s staff made it very hard for China.
“Beijing does not prefer the personal approach, as it’s highly risky and unstable,” he said. “The Chinese government would prefer to deal with institutions as they provide more certainty.”
Ashley Townshend, an expert on China-US relations at the University of Sydney, said that even with Mr Bannon gone, many other Trump administration officials — including senior trade advisers Robert Lighthizer, Peter Navarro and Dennis Shea — are still pushing for aggressive measures to reduce the US trade deficit with China.
“If Beijing expects Trump’s Asia team to go soft in the wake of Bannon’s dismissal they will be sorely disappointed,” said Mr Townshend.
Some Chinese observers even argued that life could get tougher for Beijing without Mr Bannon in the White House because his isolationist views undermined Washington’s standing in Asia and enhanced China’s position as a result.
“It was his nationalist economic agenda that led to the death of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was a huge strategic gain for China, said Zhang Baohui, a professor of political science at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.
Beyond killing off the TPP, a 12-nation trade agreement promoted by the Obama administration and seen by many as creating a rival economic bloc to China, Professor Zhang said that the nationalist approach promoted by Mr Bannon had undermined the international legitimacy of the US more generally.
If Trump’s foreign policy tilts back to its more “traditional roots” without Mr Bannon, Beijing would stand to lose, he warned.
“The odd reality could be that while the establishment types in the Trump administration may tone down economic conflicts with China, they may also up the ante on strategic, security, and diplomatic fronts,” he said.
The Chinese foreign ministry did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.
Additional reporting by Nicolle Liu
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