One of the most surprising developments in the first six months of President Donald Trump’s foreign policy has been the administration’s posture towards China. During the campaign, then-candidate Trump called China an “economic enemy” and said that it was “ripping us off.”
As April, Trump hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping at the U.S. president’s Mar-a-Lago residence in Florida, tweeting afterwards, “goodwill and friendship was formed, but only time will tell on trade.”
Last week, as the administration’s 100-day period to engage the Chinese on trade disputes wound down with little to show for it, the Trump team’s rhetoric was less positive, but still restrained.
Previous administrations have gone through similar transformations. On the campaign trail in 1992, Bill Clinton said he would pressure China on human rights using trade sanctions, before he as president oversaw the granting of permanent normal trade relations with Beijing over the objections of human rights groups.
At the beginning of his time in office, President Barack Obama initially flirted with the notion of a G2 that would have the United States and China set the course for the rest of the globe, before developing the “pivot to Asia,” to ensure that America was focused on the Asia-Pacific to balance China’s increasing power. But compared to these previous presidential transformations, the personal nature of Trump’s praise for Xi was more extreme.
After their Mar-a-Lago summit, Trump told Reuters, “\[Xi\] is a good man. He is a very good man and I got to know him very well,” before going on to say, “he loves China and he loves the people of China.”
While many Chinese citizens may beg to differ from Trump’s characterization of Xi’s feelings toward the Chinese people, much of this praise appears to have been an attempt to encourage Beijing to rein in North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s destructive behavior.
Setting aside the utility of a China-first approach to a challenge that Beijing has had decades to resolve if it wished to - with North Korea now testing an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking the United States, and having murdered an innocent American student - the approach has not borne fruit even as the threat from North Korea grows.
One hundred days after the Mar-a-Lago summit, with the Chinese having done little to assist on North Korea and also having given little ground in trade talks with the administration, the president appears to be moving towards a pressure track. But even as he does so, the administration seems stuck in a narrow mindset, pursuing that which can be extracted from Beijing, instead of embracing a long-term, strategic view of the China challenge.
This is especially odd because China’s and America’s views have shifted significantly over the past eight years. Most Democrats and Republicans have shed the pro-engagement, “responsible stakeholder” fantasy. Instead, they have adopted a more realistic assessment, finding that China’s rise is increasingly threatening U.S. allies and interests. The Obama administration’s pivot received strong bipartisan backing in Congress, as did proposals for even tougher policies to deal with China’s increasing threats to the international rules-based order.
The 2016 campaign occurred at a time when Chinese island building and the initial militarization of islands in the South China Sea were well underway and receiving increased attention. Politicians of both parties regularly described the strategic threat these actions posed to U.S. interests. During the campaign, Republican presidential candidate Scott Walker, in response to China’s provocative behavior, even urged Obama to cancel a planned September 2015 summit with Xi.
In Congress, bipartisan members introduced measures shoring up the U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific, ensuring support for allies, and threatening penalties if Chinese disregard for international norms continued. The Trump administration’s apparent return to the notion that China can still be a “responsible stakeholder” in dealing with global challenges is a reversal from these recent trends.
Defenders of the administration will point to Trump’s intention to increase defense spending and the fact that Secretary of Defense James Mattis, along with other key administration officials, appears to embrace the tougher new China consensus, in particular through his June speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. Administration officials have also gone to great lengths to shore up key alliances in Asia after candidate Trump criticized U.S. allies during the campaign.
In recent weeks, as patience with Beijing has grown thin, the administration has also taken a series of important actions, including freedom of navigation operations and arms sales to Taiwan, but by continuing to view U.S.-China relations through the lens of North Korea, the administration invites doubts about whether it is playing the long game with Beijing or the geopolitical equivalent of tic-tac-toe.
This is not to say that North Korea is not a significant challenge. But in the grand scheme of things, Kim’s antics are a distraction from the real question that will dominate geopolitics in the 21st century: Will a rising China succeed in its efforts to evict the United States from the Asia-Pacific region?
If the administration understands this challenge, it needs to make that clear via its actions as well as its rhetoric. Far too often during the past six months, U.S. actions in Asia have raised more questions than they have answered. Instead of strong signals of American resolve, the administration’s messaging has led many to question whether the United States might be willing to trade away Taiwan, its concerns regarding the South China Sea, or economic priorities if Beijing were to change course on North Korea.
That is why the administration needs to think carefully about how pressuring Beijing on North Korea will be perceived in the region. Freedom of navigation patrols should occur regularly, regardless of what China’s position is on North Korea. The Taiwan Relations Act and Six Assurances make clear that arms sales to Taiwan should occur regularly and not be negotiated with Beijing. These actions should not only occur in a fit of pique about Chinese policy toward North Korea.
U.S.-Taiwan relations have suffered perhaps the most from this entanglement of policy towards Beijing with policy towards Pyongyang. After the high of Trump’s transition phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, Trump was dismissive of Tsai in an interview in April, saying he “would certainly want to speak to \[Xi\] first” before talking to Tsai again. The recently announced arms sale was held up for months. All of this occurred as China ramped up a pressure campaign against Taiwan, attempting to lure away its diplomatic partners and to block it from participating in international organizations.
If the administration wants to link pressure on trade to China’s actions on North Korea, it also runs the risk of making it appear that U.S. concerns are not valid in and of themselves. Also, coming after U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and in an environment of significant concern among U.S. allies about the administration’s lack of a forward-looking economic agenda for the region, the White House risks undermining America’s ability to win the long game. Meanwhile, Beijing is deepening its already formidable trade relations, including with U.S. partners, and expanding its economic diplomacy through initiatives such as the Belt and Road Initiative.
So, if the administration is indeed serious about the China challenge, what should it do?
First, tone down the praise for Xi. It muddles the message with allies and partners, who are looking for more U.S. leadership in the face of an increasingly aggressive Beijing, not a return to the G2. It also undercuts the very positive actions taken by the administration to shore up U.S. alliances in the region and the potential of deepening partnerships with countries like India.
Finally, it fails to prepare the American people for the challenges ahead in U.S.-China relations.
Second, continue freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea and East China Sea, but also outline publicly why China’s actions in these areas are a threat to the global flow of trade and to U.S. interests. The administration should also consider some of the measures that have been introduced in Congress to target Chinese companies involved in island building.
Third, advocate for human rights in China. The future of China is in its almost 1.4 billion people, not Xi, who controls a party that places its own narrow economic interests ahead of the wellbeing of the Chinese people. From creeping authoritarianism in Hong Kong, to the despicable treatment of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, the administration has said little and done even less. That must change, as America’s freedom and embrace of universal values is one of its greatest weapons in the struggle against the Communist Party of China and its repressive policies at home and abroad.
Fourth, develop and begin to implement a regional economic agenda as soon as possible. Setting aside the damage done by America’s abandonment of the TPP, there are many potential bilateral free trade agreements to be negotiated, including with Taiwan. Instead, the administration seems focused on renegotiating the U.S.-South Korea free trade agreement instead of pursuing new opportunities. This needs to change quickly, as all the military spending in the world will not help if China wins the economic long game.
Most importantly, the United States needs a China policy that is not single-mindedly focused on issues like North Korea, or even economic disputes. Our China policy must address the long-term strategic challenge posed by China’s growing military and economic power. Until we realize that fundamental fact, whatever short-term concessions can be extracted from Beijing in the interim, we will be losing the long-term challenge that will likely define the 21st century.
Fly is a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund and previously served as Senator Marco Rubio’s foreign policy advisor.