The Asian Century 19.

            The Trump Administration decided to deal with the puzzle of how to manage the ascent of the Peoples Republic of China by hammering the living daylights out of China.[1]  China runs a big trade surplus with the United States, so Trump slammed on heavy tariffs.  The payment asymmetry meant that the Chinese could never hurt the United States as much by reciprocating. 

China has long-standing claims on Taiwan, now a more or less democratic and economically successful country of its own.  The Trump Administration diverged from long-standing American policy on Taiwan by warming up to it. 

China has been extending claims over the South China Sea, notably by turning reefs into fortified islands, then claiming the airspace overhead.  The Trump Administration challenged these claims, but also pressed Congress to build up the Navy. 

China has engaged in a long-running struggle for American hearts and minds.  The Trump Administration turned the FBI and Department of Justice loose on Chinese theft of intellectual property; then did the same on China’s efforts to cultivate agents of influence in academia and media. 

            However, the most effective Chinese agents of influence, during the Trump Administration and long before, were American businessmen who profited from the China trade.  They have always argued for “moderation” and “dialogue” in China policy.  Sometimes, President Trump listened to them, as did many of his predecessors.  At times, he seemed to be seeking a “Grand Bargain” with China in which China would mend its ways in return for the United States easing up its pressure.  Any such hopes crashed on the rocks of the Covid-19 pandemic and Trump’s re-election campaign.  The “Kung Flu” line allowed him to blame China for the pandemic without acknowledging his own lackluster response.[2]  American policy on China got tougher during 2016. 

            Tougher didn’t mean more effective.  The Peoples Republic of China continues on the same path as before.  That leaves the Biden Administration with an array of important decisions.  Is “Get Tough With China” the wrong policy?  In that case, one could expect an abandonment of coercion in favor of a return to older policies.  Is “Get Tough With China” the right policy, but it hasn’t had enough time to work yet to change the behavior of such a formidable rival?  In that case, one could expect a continuation of the path we’re on, dressed up with rhetorical distancing from the Trump Administration.  Is “Get Tough With China” the right policy, but the Trump Administration didn’t go far enough?  In that case, one could expect the addition of tight controls on further American investment in China, ugly quarrels in various international organizations, and port-calls by the U.S. Navy all over the region. 

            Other questions naturally follow.  How much stress can either country take?  Does Zi Jinping represent a consensus of Chinese leaders?  If not, how solid is his grip on power? 


[1] Josh Rogin, Chaos Under Heaven: Trump, Xi, and the Battle for the Twenty-First Century (2021), reviewed by Dan Blumenthal, WSJ, 12 May 2021. 

[2] Yet uncertainty remains whether Trump was entirely wrong about the origins of the pandemic.  See: Michael Gordon, Warren P. Strobel, and Drew Hinshaw, “Report on Wuhan Lab Fuels Covid-19 Debate,” WSJ, 24 May 2021; Jeremy Page, Betsy McKay, and Drew Hinshaw, “The Wuhan Lab Leak Debate: Disused Mine at Center Stage,” WSJ, 25 May 2021.