Before he even took office, Donald Trump signaled that his policies toward China would differ drastically from his predecessor. They still do.
Less than a month after his shocking 2016 election upset, the president-elect answered his phone in Trump Tower and had a pleasant 10-minute conversation with the president of China.
Not Beijing, China. Taiwan, China, as in Republic of. It was the first time an American president or president-elect had talked with that country’s leader in nearly four decades. China does not recognize Taiwan as anything but a renegade lump of its own vast territory.
This is part of a long-term strategic political and psychological adjustment between the two powers as an ambitious, rising China asserts itself regionally and multiple U.S. administrations adjust in different ways.
U.S. presidents have sold Taiwan arms but pretended to follow mainland China’s preferences to avoid offense. Perhaps you’ve noticed — China, among other countries, certainly has by now — Trump doesn’t mind causing offense if he deems it helpful to U.S. national or his own political interests.
Some commentators tried to portray Trump’s conversation with Tsai Ing-wen as a naïve gesture that humiliated Beijing. Soon after, however, at his Florida resort, Trump was wooing big China’s now supreme leader, Xi Jinping and his wife with, among other things, granddaughter Arabella singing a Chinese folk song in Mandarin.
The goal then was to seek Xi’s help reining in North Korea’s leader and his determined nuclear weapons program. Whatever Xi did,combined with Trump’s credible show of military force, severe international economic sanctions and some derisive Rocket Man name-calling by Trump, prompted Kim Jung-un to suggest an unprecedented summit.
Since then, North Korea has halted nuclear and missile tests. Planning for a second summit is underway.
A favorite Trump tactic is using this country’s economic weight with economic sanctions or their threat to persuade other countries. So far, such efforts have freed at least 17 Americans held by other nations, most recently Pastor Andrew Brunson, who was sent home by Turkey.
From the beginning of his presidential campaign in 2015 in the lobby of that same Trump Tower, the New Yorker has attacked China over its unfair trade practices and theft of intellectual property.
Others agree. FBI Director Christopher Wray warned the other day that China “represents the broadest, most complicated, most long-term counterintelligence threat we face.”
After negotiations stalled, Trump began slapping tariffs on sectors of Chinese imports to force changes. Naturally, China retaliated, as targeted countries usually do in these often pointless tit-for-tat tariff tussles. “China wants to make a deal,” Trump claims. “China would love to make a deal. I don’t think they’re ready yet.”
And a U.S. administration is finally starting to crack down on Chinese industrial espionage with the arrest in Belgium of an alleged major player and his extradition to Washington.
Here’s what U.S. media coverage of Trump’s trade “wars” often overlooks with its battle metaphors: China has much more at stake economically than does the U.S.
With an economy nearing $18 trillion, the largest in the world, the U.S. has become China’s most important trading partner. Chinese entities sell to the U.S. around $470 billion a year. That’s a lot of import stuff for Trump to tax.
The U.S., on the other hand, sells to China only $124 billion a year, a much smaller target susceptible to retaliation.
China, however, is not defenseless. It can seek other suppliers of corn and soybeans, as the Soviet Union did during the Carter administration.
And in a new twist last month, Beijing bought a four-page ad insert in Iowa’s top newspaper detailing the alleged damage Trump trade policies were inflicting on Iowa farmers. Not coincidentally, the sales pitch came just six weeks before midterm elections, when a president’s party usually suffers congressional losses anyway.
Coming after allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 campaigns, the ad touched a political nerve in the White House.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis, a 40-year Marine who knows war too well, describes construction of this long-term strategy as cooperate where we can, compete where possible, confront where we must.
During Cold War years, the global competition was largely ideological and clear-cut black and white. The world is messier now. Russian and U.S. nuclear-armed forces, for instance, confront each other in many places, yet their governments cooperate in tracking terrorists and near-Earth space exploration.
As an ambitious China expands its economy, military and a population already four times the size of the U.S., the big question for at least the next generation is:
Can China and the United States patiently build an equivalent, multi-layered status quo that allows for competition, cooperation and controlled confrontation?
That’s an uncertain process that will require a mutual respect that comes from a strength that creates deterrence. Through a U.S. military buildup and more assertive trade policies, Trump is attempting in his own way to restore that strength. Much depends on his success.