Yet this latest Trump fiasco was for once something more than an individual quirk. Trump’s actions against China were supported by growing impetus among American conservatives to get tough on China, not only strategically, but economically too.
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In October 2018, Vice President Mike Pence appeared at the Hudson Institute, a conservative Washington think tank, to place the Trump trade policy in context. Unlike Trump’s China statements, Pence’s speech was intellectually coherent and carefully worded.
Pence began by setting forth a problem: “China wants nothing less than to push the United States of America from the Western Pacific and attempt to prevent us from coming to the aid of our allies,” he said. Pence itemized U.S. grievances. He stated demands: “The United States wants Beijing to pursue trade policies that are free, fair, and reciprocal.” He outlined policy responses intended to constrain China and compel better behavior from it: stiffer rules on technology transfers, more U.S. military spending, and bilateral trade deals with other Asia-Pacific countries. Without even a twinkle of irony, Pence even praised investigative journalists who unearthed the financial secrets of corrupt authoritarians—so long, presumably, as they restricted their scope of work to Chinese corrupt authoritarians.
“It’s also great to see more journalists reporting the truth without fear or favor, digging deep to find where China is interfering in our society, and why,” Pence said. “And we hope that American and global news organizations will continue to join this effort on an increasing basis."
Pence’s words did not align with Trump-administration actions. Even as trade tensions crackled between the United States and China, Trump was picking trade fights with countries Pence had identified as potential trade allies—notably India in June 2019. The Peterson Institute for International Economics estimates that by mid-February of this year, Trump had imposed new restrictions on 12.6 percent of U.S. international trade. He had targeted not only China, but also the European Union, Canada, Mexico, and South Korea.
By the time Pence next spoke formally about China, this October, he did not have much good news to report. In the year since his last speech, Pence said, “Beijing has still not taken significant action to improve our economic relationship. And on many other issues we’ve raised, Beijing’s behavior has become even more aggressive and destabilizing.”
Persistent failure, however, has not caused a policy rethink. If anything, the administration’s allies have urged even tougher policies. On Tuesday, in a speech to the National Defense University, Senator Marco Rubio delivered a grim assessment. “The Chinese Communist Party,” he said, “has emerged as an immediate and growing threat to prosperity, our freedoms, and our security.” Rubio proposed a new industrial policy as a remedy, a new burst of state interventionism to encourage investment in critical sectors. Even Senator Mitt Romney, who has criticized Trump on so much else, has defended Trump’s anti-China tariffs as necessary to protect the U.S. economy.