Does Trump Deserve Credit on China?

The president’s approach is different than his predecessors’—but that doesn’t mean it’s working.

Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2017
Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2017 (Damir Sagolj / Reuters)

President Donald Trump declared a national emergency and banned equipment made by tech firms of “foreign adversaries” from operating in the United States. The Department of Commerce followed up, listing Huawei and dozens of other Chinese firms as risks to American national security, prohibiting them from selling or buying in the U.S. market. The actions were much broader and more bare-knuckle than even China hawks had expected.

Trump’s supporters are test marketing the argument that only he could or would get tough on China. Steve Cortes, writing in RealClearPolitics, compared Trump on China to Ronald Reagan on the Soviet Union—ahead of his time in confronting its malevolence. Greg Autry wrote in Foreign Policy, “Trump’s China policy is a triumph.” The Wall Street Journal reported that CEOs have been coming around to support tariffs as “American business’s best shot at addressing those long-standing grievances.” Even The New York Times acknowledged that Trump has overturned years of failed multilateral efforts to deal with China.

Is Trump “winning” China, in contrast to his predecessors?

Previous presidents did allow China to accede to the World Trade Organization in 1999 and to receive permanent normal trade-relations status with the United States in 2000, even though China was not in full compliance with the rules. President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair orchestrated China’s entry into the liberal economic order—what they termed the “rules-based order”—in the belief that a China integrated into the global economy would succumb to political openness. Western policy makers have long assumed that as people grow more prosperous, they become more demanding political consumers. Regime change by prosperity, if you will. Subsequent administrations also believed that China would become a “responsible stakeholder” once it was a member of the global club.

As Reihan Salam has argued, those decisions now look faulty. Or at least premature. The Chinese Communist Party may worry about its ability to preserve its control. Otherwise, why would it need to build a surveillance state, to put 1 million Uighurs in “reeducation camps,” to ostracize and imprison human-rights lawyers, or to “disappear” the head of Interpol? But it doesn’t appear to be anywhere near actually losing that control.

One line of argument, advanced by Cortes, among others, is that Trump was the first to understand the challenge China poses. That is, no other politician was able to recognize that a China rising without playing by the rules of the American order would present a systemic challenge. Believing this would require accepting that no other politician saw China thieving intellectual property from U.S. companies, forcing technology transfers, prejudicing state-owned companies, or manipulating its currency to mercantile advantage. But the public record proves that other leading political and economic figures understood the risks: Mitt Romney during the 2012 presidential campaign, for example, and President Barack Obama, who set up the 19-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership so that China would get access to those markets only if it played by the new rules.

What is striking about the U.S. debate on China is how little debate there actually is over whether China is a malign force in trade, development, foreign, or domestic policy. China policy would likely have hardened under any American leader because China’s actions have been so egregious that they are undeniable.

A second line of argument is that only Trump could force Chinese compliance to the rules because only he is willing to use the tactics likely to be successful. Variations on the theme include Trump as master negotiator and Trump as either purposeful or inadvertent practitioner of the madman theory of international politics. Peter Navarro, the president’s director of trade and manufacturing policy, put it like this: “The reality is, unless the president talks tough on trade and has possible concrete actions to back up that talk, these people won’t talk to us. They had no incentive to talk to us, none, because they’re winning and we’re losing.”

As Phil Levy pointed out a year ago in Forbes, though, the madman approach is productive only if the leader pivots to making reasonable demands once the counterparty comes to the table: “This has been the problem that has plagued Trump trade policy—his erratic behavior has effectively brought lots of countries to the negotiating table, but he has then presented them with equally wild demands that fail to serve U.S. interests.”

Trump is different from his predecessors when it comes to China, in part because he uses tools that are economically riskier than those that more traditional presidents would have chosen. Those tools threaten economic growth and incite stock volatility. Unlike other presidents, Trump doesn’t bother to gather allies and use international institutions such as the WTO or agreements such as the TPP, obvious advantages the United States has in any confrontation with China.

The administration’s tools include: tariffs, freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, opposition to Chinese companies in communications networks, study and travel restrictions on Chinese nationals suspected of spying or having links to the Chinese military. Setting aside the merit of these choices, the administration gets in its own way by failing to prioritize its efforts to contain China—pivoting back to the Middle East now, then threatening a trade war with Europe.

What strategy really is, as Eliot Cohen has argued, is a theory of victory: How will we use what means are available to us to attain our aims? Previous American presidents theorized that China would see the advantages of becoming rule-abiding. Trump theorizes that the American economy is strong enough to force Chinese submission. Those different approaches portend very different kinds of relations for the United States with China: The first would make them partners in prosperity; the second would reveal them supplicants.

But Trump contends that his approach is working, tweeting that “they are, and will be, losing.” Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross thinks not only that the U.S. will win the trade war, but that it may result in social unrest that challenges Communist Party control in China. So we are back to regime change, but this time by threatening penury rather than luring with prosperity.