Trump is trying to shove 4 years of China policy into 4 months

Trump is all of a sudden taking a harder stance on China.AP Photo/Alex Brandon
  • The Trump administration has pivoted from the US's policy of strategic ambiguity toward China, to open rivalry over the last few weeks.
  • And in that time it has announced a slew of aggressive policies toward China with little explanation of what it plans to do in the event that China retaliates.
  • If that sounds intense, that's because it is. We've gone from zero to Mad Max with China, and officials in Beijing know it's going to stay this wild all the way leading up to the November election.
  • This is an environment where mistakes, misunderstandings, and accidents can make a terrible impact on relations between the US and China, and the world.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

One month President Trump's former National Security Adviser, John Bolton, publishes a White House memoir exposing him as weak on China. The next, Trump is throwing a veritable kitchen sink of aggressive policies at Beijing in an effort to look tough ahead of the November election.

If that kind of belligerent 180 between two world powers seems dangerous to you, that's because it is. Until (and if) Trump leaves office in January, relations between the US and China will be in free fall.

Up until now Trump has avoided taking a tough stance on China because he's been obsessed with securing a trade deal that would impress his base and supposedly prove how much of a "dealmaker" he is. But last week in one of his coronavirus press conferences, Trump told reporters that he was setting the deal aside, opening the door to a more aggressive stance.Advertisement

This abandonment of a further trade deal coincides with a flurry of activity on the China policy front over the last few weeks. We've gone from zero to Mad Max.

Everyone is watching the clock

Here's just a smattering of what the Trump administration has done to pivot direction on China over the past few weeks:

  • Trump is set to sign an order demanding that China based ByteDance sell its US operations of popular app TikTok and said Friday he plans to ban TikTok in the US.
  • The US shut down the Chinese consulate in Houston.
  • The US placed sanctions on Chinese officials involved with human rights violations in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
  • The White House is considering banning Communist Party members (roughly 90 million people) from the US.
  • The State Department made noise about China's "unlawful" buildup of military bases in the South China Sea.
  • The US retaliated against China for a crackdown on US journalists with a crackdown on Chinese journalists in the US.
  • Attorney General Barr made a speech accusing tech giants of being too cozy with China.
And finally last week Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a speech at the Nixon Library, replete with historical inaccuracies and hyperbole about the need for the US to turn its back on China and form a new world order of like-minded countries. He said that our country's naive (perhaps greedy) hope that China would become more liberal with our influence should be more than dashed at this point.
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"President Reagan said that he dealt with the Soviet Union on the basis of 'trust but verify.' When it comes to the CCP, I say we must distrust and verify," Pompeo said. "We, the freedom-loving nations of the world, must induce China to change, just as President Nixon wanted. We must induce China to change in more creative and assertive ways, because Beijing's actions threaten our people and our prosperity."

How exactly the US will induce China to change is unclear. What Pompeo is describing is hardly a strategy, it's more of an attitude adjustment, and that's not lost on Democrats in Congress. Last week the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had a hearing on the US-China relationship, and Ranking Member Bob Menendez — like the rest of his Democratic colleagues — had nothing positive to say about China's behavior. That doesn't mean they think this pivot is wise, though, either. "When China retaliates as it says it will, what will be our next move, and the next move after that," Menendez asked. "This is not a simple two-step dance." He called for a "new era of strategic competition with China" and "a new strategic framework."Advertisement

But that's not what we're getting here. What we're getting looks less like grand design and more like a Jackson Pollock painting.

We used to have an understanding

None of this is lost on China. A former State Department official told me that Chinese officials understand that Trump is at his most dangerous now. He's looking at his flagging poll numbers, the shortening calendar before the election and trying to impress his base. Beijing knows that China hardliners in Congress and the administration see this as their last shot to enact harsh policies before — what could be— the end of Trump's time in office.

Conversely, the China hardliners — who know Trump doesn't actually care about issues like human rights — think China will use these last few months of the administration to test the boundaries of what Trump will tolerate, even in this more aggressive posture. Advertisement

Yes, this is extremely dangerous.

Meanwhile the global economy is on tenterhooks as the coronavirus rips through the United States virtually unchecked. China needs the US market, the US market is on its knees. It would be nice if the two powers could talk this situation out, but as Guggenheim Investments Chief Investment Officer Scott Minerd this move from a policy of strategic ambiguity with China to one of open hostility has made cooperation unlikely.

"Pre-virus tensions have not disappeared due to the pandemic, they have escalated as blame is being cast on China for both causing and trying to cover up the virus," Minerd wrote in a note to clients. "Anti-China sentiment in the US is bipartisan and as fervent as it has been since about the 1950s. Both President Trump and former Vice President Biden are talking tough on China, and this is likely to lead to a more muscular approach to China that will characterize whichever administration is in power in 2021."Advertisement

American public opinion is following its leaders. According to an April survey conducted by the Pew Research Center 66% of Americans have an unfavorable view of China, making it even harder for politicians from either side of the aisle to take a softer stance.

There are some in the US-China watching business, including former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, who fear "decoupling" — a split between the US and Chinese economies that leaves the world divided into two camps. Some favor partial decoupling, in which the US distances itself from China by cutting off ties in the technology space but maintaining financial relations.

There is no precedent for such an arrangement, but there is more than enough precedent for this relationship spinning out of control and imploding. The US-China relationship is a cycle of opening and closing. China opens when it needs outside money and closes when the money isn't worth the outside intrusion.Advertisement

On the American side, there have been people in the US working to keep the door to China open, even just a bit. In the next four months we may watch a US administration do all it can to slam it closed.

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