No one who has not drunk the Kool-Aid would go that far, but some otherwise sober commentators are willing to give Trump credit for reorienting the U.S. approach to China. The Economist, for example, recently wrote: “The achievement of the Trump administration was to recognise the authoritarian threat from China. The task of the Biden administration will be to work out what to do about it.”
Some “achievement.” U.S. administrations have been recognizing the “authoritarian threat from China” ever since the Communist takeover in 1949. Indeed, it has long been a staple of U.S. politics to accuse one’s opponents of being soft on Beijing. As a commentator noted in 2012: “Ronald Reagan repeatedly criticized President Jimmy Carter for establishing diplomatic relations with Beijing. Bill Clinton excoriated the ‘butchers of Beijing’ in the 1992 campaign. . . . Candidate Barack Obama labeled President George W. Bush ‘a patsy’ in dealing with China and promised to go ‘to the mat’ over Beijing’s ‘unfair’ trade practices.”
Hardliners will object that previous presidents became “panda huggers” once in office. That’s unfair. Past administrations tried to strike a balance between competing with China and cooperating with it on issues of mutual concern such as trade and the environment. But even before Trump came along, the U.S. approach had been getting tougher because of China’s growing power, brutality and assertiveness since President Xi Jinping took office in 2013.
As a Japanese academic noted, President Barack Obama went from agreeing in 2009 with then-President Hu Jintao that the two countries should respect each other’s “core interests” to pivoting U.S. forces to the Pacific to contain China, concluding security agreements with countries such as Vietnam, promoting the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to prevent China from writing “the rules of the global economy,” and urging U.S. allies not to participate in China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
That is far from appeasement — and Trump’s approach is not consistently hardline. The hallmark of Trump’s policy toward China has been its sheer incoherence.
Yet at the same time Trump has been obsequious to China’s leader. “Terrific working with President Xi, a man who truly loves his country,” he tweeted on Jan. 22. Early on, Trump credulously accepted Xi’s phony assurances that covid-19 was under control. “The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency,” he tweeted on Jan. 24.
The Trump administration has sanctioned Chinese officials for human rights abuses, but former national security adviser John Bolton writes in his memoir that Trump told Xi that he “should go ahead” with building concentration camps for Uighurs, “which Trump thought was exactly the right thing to do.” According to Bolton, Trump also asked Xi to help him win reelection by purchasing lots of U.S. farm goods.
Bolton concludes that the administration had a “good slogan, calling for a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ region. But a bumper sticker is not a strategy.”
It should be no surprise, given Trump’s lack of a strategy, that China has become a bigger threat on his watch. The U.S. trade deficit with China — which Trump desperately wanted to reduce — was essentially the same in October ($30.1 billion) as when he took office in January 2017 ($31.4 billion). China has imported only half as many U.S. goods as it promised under Trump’s vaunted trade deal, while U.S. consumption of Chinese exports has been surging. Trump hurt the U.S. economy and helped China by exiting the TPP.
While Trump increased defense spending, the U.S. military continues to lose ground to Beijing, which has invested heavily in “asymmetric” technologies such as “carrier-killer” missiles and cyberweapons. Recent war games show the United States losing a war with China.
Now, China is feeling stronger than ever after having essentially stopped covid-19 while the United States continues to be ravaged by a pandemic that Trump mismanaged. A retired Chinese military officer recently crowed: “We’re a victor power, while the United States is still mired and, I think, may well become a defeated power.”
Such Chinese triumphalism is premature, but Trump has nothing to boast of either. His China policy was a fiasco. Far from building on the foundations that Trump laid, the Biden administration will have to start from scratch to develop a balanced strategy that avoids the extremes of racist hysteria and abject sycophancy that have been the hallmarks of the Trump approach.