Trump’s China strategy is the most radical in decades — and it’s failing

Trump’s China strategy is the most radical in decades — and it’s failing

“The administration diagnosed the right problem, but it came up with the wrong remedy.”

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Alex [email protected]

Updated

Sep 19, 2018, 12:07pm EDT

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Trump’s China strategy is the most radical in decades — and it’s failing

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President Donald Trump is leading one of the most radical changes in America’s stance toward China in decades.

Where past presidents engaged Beijing in good faith on issues like improving its human rights record or its conduct in cyberspace, Trump has preferred to treat the country as a strategic competitor that requires a more aggressive response by the United States.

The US has a lot to be angry about. Among other indiscretions, Beijing has stolen US technological and personnel secrets for its own advantage, antagonized US allies in the South China Sea, killed or imprisoned more than a dozen American informants, and taken millions of US jobs over the past 15 years.

But instead of working to fix at least some elements of strained US-China relations while putting up with the bulk of China’s misbehavior, Trump has chosen to completely reshape the relationship and go after Beijing on all of it.

“This administration is not really focused on just a couple of things,” says Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, “it’s really focused on everything.”

Trump’s China strategy is the most radical in decades — and it’s failing

Here are just a few examples: The biggest one, of course, is that Trump started a trade war expressly intended to cripple China’s economy. But he’s also increased support for Taiwan in its decades-long dispute with China, he disinvited China’s navy from participating in a major international military exercise, and he put pressure on Chinese Communist Party-funded culture and language programs on US college campuses.

The goal, according to experts and current and former Trump administration officials I spoke to, is to squeeze China — and in particular its economy — so hard that it finally decides to play by the rules once and for all. And if it doesn’t, well, then so be it. The Chinese have ripped us off for so long, the thinking goes, who cares if they’re unhappy now?

“Trump is engaged in a sophisticated form of economic warfare to confront the Chinese,” Steve Bannon, Trump’s former top strategist and a self-proclaimed China hawk, tells me.

But so far, it’s not working — because China has started to fight back.

China has already imposed retaliatory tariffs on billions of dollars’ worth of American goods. And although Beijing initially helped put economic pressure on North Korea at the request of the Trump administration, it has now relaxed those sanctions, thereby giving Pyongyang an economic outlet to avoid devastating penalties. On top of that, Beijing has moved closer to Moscow and Tehran since Trump entered the Oval Office, partially thwarting US efforts to isolate those countries.

The Chinese have ripped us off for so long, the thinking goes, who cares if they’re unhappy now?

Experts say the debate in Beijing now centers on whether the US wants to stop China’s economic and political rise or even destroy the country’s ruling Communist Party — and less on how to cooperate with the US.

“Either scenario gives China no incentive for addressing any of the concerns we’re raising,” says Ryan Hass, a top China official on the National Security Council from 2013 to 2017.

China can just wait Trump out, experts tell me, since Trump will only be in office for no more than six more years, whereas Chinese President Xi Jinping is poised to rule China for decades. Beijing can therefore withstand the current pressure and wait for a new administration that likely will be less combative.

That means it’s unlikely Trump’s approach will succeed anytime soon — and may actually imperil the relationship long after Trump is gone.

“The administration diagnosed the right problem,” Hass says, “but it came up with the wrong remedy.”

Trump’s China strategy is the most radical in decades — and it’s failing

No more “engagement for engagement’s sake”

Engagement with China, meaning consistent and significant dialogue on areas of mutual interest, has defined Washington-Beijing relations since the Nixon era. But to understand just how differently Trump deals with China, consider how the past two presidents — George W. Bush and Barack Obama — approached Beijing.

Both leaders wanted China to become a “responsible stakeholder,” a wonderfully wonky Washington term that mostly means they hoped Beijing would abide by global, cooperative rules even as it gained immense power.

The past two presidents had a remarkably similar strategy to see that happen: make China act more like America.

In 2001, for example, Bush gave China permanent trade status. That allowed Beijing to exchange goods and services with the US — but with few to no tariffs. The hope was it would open up China’s market to the world and that over time, China would start to abide by accepted global trading practices.

Trump’s China strategy is the most radical in decades — and it’s failing

Fourteen years later, Obama reached an agreement with China to curb cyberattacks. Months before the deal, China had hacked into the Office of Personnel Management — the US government’s chief human resources agency — and stolen sensitive information from millions of Americans.

But Obama, like presidents before him, claimed that engaging China might compel it to act less aggressively in cyberspace, or at least stop attacking America so much.

Bush and Obama only slightly curbed China’s unfair trading practices and cyberespionage. But they did find ways to address vital grievances with Beijing, such as human rights and press freedom, and work together on issues like climate change and military interactions, by following the general American strategy to engage China on tough, sometimes unpalatable, issues in the name of improved relations.

Trump has so far rejected that approach. But that was always likely.

Trump considers China one of America’s most cunning adversaries. At a 2016 campaign rally in Indiana, he told the crowd, “We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country, and that’s what they’re doing.”

It’s therefore not so shocking that Trump eschewed Bush and Obama’s approach and adopted a more pugilistic one. “This administration has thrown off an ideological attachment to engagement for engagement’s sake,” a senior administration official told me. “That probably was overdue.”

Here’s what that means in practice: The US will no longer just talk about the problems it has with China. Instead, Washington will simply punish Beijing for perceived wrongs.

That’s manifested itself mostly visibly in a war — a trade war.

“Tariffs. I want tariffs.”

America and China are the world’s two largest economies, and the US is China’s largest trading partner. But nothing seems to bother Trump more than that relationship.

“It’s an economic enemy, because they have taken advantage of us like nobody in history,” he said about China during a 2015 Good Morning America interview. “It’s the greatest theft in the history of the world what they’ve done to the United States.”

America’s trade deficit in goods and services with China was $335.4 billion in 2017. That deficit keeps rising, and in August it grew by another $31 billion, meaning that Beijing exported $31 billion more goods to the US that month than the US sent the other way.

Trump and some of his top economic advisers, in