We can all stop pretending Trump is tough on China now

We can all stop pretending Trump is tough on China now
Business Insider

We can all stop pretending Trump is tough on China now
US President Donald Trump and China's President Xi JinpingJonathan Ernst/Reuters

  • The former national security adviser John Bolton's new tell-all book makes it clear that President Donald Trump isn't a China hawk, or a China dove. His stance on China is purely transactional.
  • Trump just wants to do a trade deal with China that will please his base enough to ensure his reelection.
  • Bolton says Trump begged Chinese President Xi Jinping to step up agricultural purchases, for example, while ignoring China's human-rights violations in hopes of striking a trade deal.
  • The president has no policy, no principles. All he cares about is power.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

We can now all stop pretending President Donald Trump is tough on China.

Revelations in the former national security adviser John Bolton's forthcoming tell-all book about his time in the White House, "The Room Where It Happened," make it plain that Trump is not a China hawk. He's not a dove either. He's a Donald — completely transactional and motivated only by self-interest. In this case, that self-interest is reelection.

Sure, under Trump the US started a trade war with China, which was expensive to both countries. But that was just him playing the same kind of grievance politics he's been pushing since the 1980s, when his punching bag was Japan. It just so happens, though, that when he started blaming China it rallied his base. So to win reelection — which is his singular desire — he knows he has to deliver something.

A Wall Street Journal piece previewing the book said Bolton wrote that last year Trump begged Chinese President Xi Jinping to buy farm products to please his base. In Bolton's telling, Trump also gave Xi the OK to "go ahead with building" the concentration camps where the Chinese government has imprisoned millions of Uyghur Muslims. Bolton also said Trump didn't want to get involved with Hong Kong's democratic protests because "we have human-rights problems too."


When it comes to China, Bolton makes Trump sound like the flailing balloon man outside the used-car lot that is our once great nation. All he wants is a deal. Everything else is unimportant. Everything else can go.

A president with no principles

This makes sense based on the mixed messages the White House has sent about China for the past three years. China watchers will tell you that Trump's China policy has an unmistakable pattern.

First there's bluster from Trump about a specific issue, be it trade, or violations of sanctions by the tech giant ZTE, or spying; then the media speculates what will happen, expecting the worst given his rhetoric; and then finally Trump makes a toothless announcement that does not reflect his prior tone.

Trump pulled this move just a few weeks ago. After China passed a security bill meant to curtail Hong Kong's legal autonomy, Trump gave a press conference announcing a series of toothless measures that scared no one.

While Trump has signed bills criticizing the country for human-rights abuses against Hong Kongers and Uyghur Muslims, these came after both chambers of Congress had passed the bills with near-unanimous support. And Trump has seemed far more concerned with his trade deal than with these human-rights abuses.


Again, none of this makes Trump a China hawk. But it doesn't make him a dove either. He has no real intention of make China more democratic or pushing it toward a market-based economy. He just wants to do deals that make him look effective to his base so he can win reelection and look important with the authoritarian leaders who Trump clearly admires.

After all, even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Trump had kind words for Xi. As long as the trade deal on which he was hanging his political aspirations was in play, Trump was willing to bargain. And based on Bolton's telling, Xi knew that bargaining could be eased along with flattery too. It's hard to imagine an easier mark.

Trump's cabinet and allies must know he has no real policy goals, just a desire to give his base what they want so he can have what he wants — another win. Perhaps that is why, as I posited in May, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was running around the country spreading the conspiracy theory that the coronavirus had escaped from a Chinese lab. The hawks, like Pompeo, know Trump has no real ideological issue with China, so they wanted to rile him up just as they were riling up his base. They needed to tie their own policy goals to his desire for reelection.

In other words, like Xi, those around Trump see him as a tool they can manipulate through flattery or by appearing on his favorite TV shows. Once you know he's motivated solely by reelection, it's easy to maneuver the American president. He has no real values — certainly not the ones this country espouses.

In fact, according to Bolton, Trump told Xi over dinner that "people are saying" this country should abolish term limits for him just like China did for Xi.


That's not a hawk, and that's not a dove. That's a dictator.