Of all the Trump administration’s foreign policy failures, it is hard to think of one more comprehensive or consequential than its China policy. Candidate Donald Trump promised a “tougher” approach against China that would lower trade deficits, bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S., and compel China to end its unfair economic practices and manipulation. Nearly four years later, not only did Trump’s Trade War annihilate 300,000 jobs, but none of the stated objectives were realized. It is difficult to imagine a single issue where Trump was able to convince China to act more favorably towards the United States.
Despite irreparably damaging the U.S.-China bilateral relationship and harming global stability, America’s trade deficit rose and China’s unfair trade and cyber practices have expanded. China has reneged on its commitments to respect Hong Kong’s autonomy, continued its military activities and territorial ambitions in the South China Sea, launched multiple cyber-attacks against Australia, and done little to support U.S. diplomacy on North Korea. Meanwhile, domestically, China is increasing repression and brutally imprisoning nearly a million Uighurs in Xinjiang, with Trump’s apparent approval. While it is true that it is necessary to pressure China to reform many of its less savory practices, Trump’s insistence on unilateral and reckless action and disdain for coherent and consistent strategy and expertise, ruined any possibility of progress. In light of these developments, Trump’s policy of getting tough on China has been a miserable failure, ineffective in furthering American interests, greatly harmed global stability, and worthy of a D- grade.
Trump’s approach has been flawed by the fantasy that he could translate a personal relationship with Xi into a better trade deal. From the start of his presidency, Trump courted and praised the Chinese dictator, congratulated him for consolidating power, promised to tone down criticism over Hong Kong, and as recently as late February 2020 praised Xi’s “hard work” and “transparency” in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. The problem with the plan was that Xi is an unsentimental autocrat trying to run a country of 1.4 billion people who believe China’s time has come. The idea that he would take personal affection for Trump, even if it existed, into account as he pursued China’s “national rejuvenation” was always naïve.
Making the goal of building a coherent and consistent approach to China impossible, later in his presidency, Trump and his national security team began treating China as a Cold War enemy, and in many instances, in strikingly nationalistic and racist terms. Trump’s decision to blame China for hundreds of thousands of American deaths from what he now calls “the China plague” and the “Kung Flu” accomplished nothing but shifting the blame of his domestic failures elsewhere. Far from forging either a better relationship or reaching a better trade deal, the two countries now risk sliding into a new form of Cold War that could deeply damage U.S. interests, or even lead to a devastating military conflict.
A rising, nationalistic, and repressive China that is unwilling to respect global rules and norms poses an unprecedented geopolitical challenge for the United States. The response to this challenge, however, is not the fantasy of “decoupling” the U.S. economy from China’s, which would impose enormous economic costs on Americans, or to demonize China and treat it as an enemy. Instead, the United States should develop a comprehensive strategy to defend its interests and compete with China based on domestic and economic renewal, leveraging global alliances, bolstering regional deterrence, and clear-eyed dialogue with Beijing.
Instead of cutting research, innovation, science, and education, America should renew its domestic capacities. Instead of dishonoring American values of democracy, human rights, and multilateral cooperation, America should lead by example. Instead of acting unilaterally, feuding with and besmirching our allies, America should work with them to develop multilateral institutions to counter the Chinese Government’s less scrupulous ambitions. Politically, Democrats who want to persuade the American people that they have a better plan for China need to avoid falling into the trap of trying simply to appear tougher than Trump and keep in mind the old adage that you can’t fight something with nothing.