Local Chinese magazine Global People with a cover story that translates to "Why did Trump win" at a news stand in Shanghai. (Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images)

Donald Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip style goes down well with a large part of the American electorate. It probably won’t be a barrier to relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and could even be an advantage when dealing with President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines.

But with China’s leader, Xi Jinping, it might be a different story.

Both in substance and style, the Trump presidency represents a very serious challenge to U.S.-
China relations.

Quite how much U.S. policy toward Taiwan will change after Trump’s protocol-shattering phone call with that country’s leader, Tsai Ing-wen, on Friday remains unclear, but when it comes to relations with China, experts say the president-elect represents a fundamental shift.

His approach moves away from a decades-old consensus that economic engagement between the two countries is a mutually beneficial “win-win” relationship.

Trump has repeatedly indicated that he views the relationship with China as much more of a zero-sum game, and one he believes the United States is losing.

“He has been very consistent about it. On trade, security issues, investment issues, he hasn’t said anything kind or nice about China,” said Yanmei Xie, China policy analyst at Gavekal Dragonomics in Beijing. “Trump genuinely believes China is a problem for the U.S.”

That, Xie said, represents a “paradigm shift.”

Then there is the style. 

Presidential phone calls and personal meetings between the leaders of the United States and China have always been heavy on “talking points,” laborious reiterations of long-established positions and carefully scripted statements that are short on surprises and long on bureaucratic formulas. There is very little spontaneity or any shooting from the hip.

But Trump, his senior adviser Kellyanne Conway observed on Sunday, is “not really a talking points kind of guy.”

Instead, he is a Twitter kind of guy, using the social media platform first to respond to the furor over his telephone call with Tsai and then to respond further to China’s objections to that call.

“Did China ask us if it was OK to devalue their currency (making it hard for our companies to compete), heavily tax our products going into their country (the U.S. doesn’t tax them) or build a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea?” he asked. “I don’t think so!”

While China used to hold down the value of its currency, Trump’s complaint about devaluation is now widely considered to be years out of date: Between 2005 and 2015, China allowed the yuan to appreciate significantly. But his two other claims are closer to the mark: China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001 as a developing country, and under WTO rules its import tariffs are significantly higher than most U.S. tariffs. China has reclaimed land in the South China Sea on disputed reefs and rocks and is building what appear to be military bases there, experts say, although Beijing insists it is merely asserting its territorial rights and will continue to guarantee freedom of navigation.

Aside from the irony of Trump’s using a social media platform that is banned in China, there is the risk of a diplomatic spat deteriorating into a more significant war of words or fanning deeper suspicions between the two sides, experts say.

“Before, China could assume its tough rhetoric would be taken as tough rhetoric, but Trump has shown he does not take rhetorical slights lightly,” Xie said. “He takes them as serious offense.”

China’s Foreign Ministry adopted a sober tone over the Taiwan call, reiterating that it had lodged a protest both in Washington and Beijing.

“The world is very clear on China’s solemn position. The U.S. side, including Trump’s transition team, is also clear on China’s solemn position,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said at a news conference. “China and U.S. economic and trade relations have long been mutually beneficial, or it would not have developed to this stage. To sustain such momentum, it requires joint efforts, and both sides need to remain committed to the principles that led to the establishment of our diplomatic ties.”

Of course, there are reasons to remain levelheaded. Trump and his team of advisers are not in the business of destroying relations with the world’s second-largest economy and one of the United States’ largest trading partners.

Trump and Xi have already spoken by telephone and “established a clear sense of mutual respect,” according to a statement last month from his campaign team.

Qiao Mu, a journalism professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University, said Trump’s “anti-establishment, chaotic and egotistical work style” would almost certainly bring some turbulence to the relationship.

But he said Trump’s style might be more acceptable to an authoritarian leader like Xi, since “they both think it’s okay to skip the proper process and relevant departments, and make decisions on their own.”

In another sign that Beijing did not want to be drawn further into the spat, Lu, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, declined to comment directly on the content of Trump’s tweets.

“I know the media in the U.S. made a lot of comments on President-elect Trump during his campaign season, but for us in China we never comment on the style and personality of political leaders from other countries,” he said. “What we care about is his policies, and especially his policies toward China.”

Nevertheless, China will have to get used to a very different way of conducting diplomacy. For a country where status and saving face are very important, that will be a challenge.

For all the talk of chemistry between them, President Obama’s meetings with Xi were always dominated by the exchange of talking points, diplomats have said. There was also a mutual sense of trust that whatever disagreements the two men might have, a team of experienced and committed diplomats would ensure that relations remained on an even keel.

Under a Trump administration, that assurance and trust could be absent.

His refusal to use talking points and acknowledge foreign policy conventions could lead him “to make gaffes that are inherently destabilizing and require constant and extensive cleanup or walking-back by his team,” said Paul Haenle, who was on the National Security Council staffs of George W. Bush and Obama and is now director of the Carnegie-
Tsinghua Center in Beijing.

“Moreover, they force leaders to constantly be guessing whether they should take Trump’s words or tweets seriously, or whether he is speaking impulsively and without background,” Haenle said.

China’s Communist Party, however, knows it needs a solid partnership with the United States for its own security and economic interests, and will do its best to maintain relations on an even keel.

Luna Lin contributed to this report.