Read James Fallows on China’s great leap backward.
This faction includes not just prominent protectionist-minded trade advisers like Peter Navarro, but also “sophisticated strategic thinkers” at places like the Defense Department and National Security Council, Ratner said. And they are aiming to do nothing less than “decouple” the U.S. and Chinese economies so that American technologies and industries are less susceptible to Chinese theft and coercion. They believe “the vulnerabilities associated with being overly interdependent with China is a problem in and of itself,” Ratner explained. “I think the debate [within the administration] is over the extent of that decoupling. I think it’s very unlikely that we get a deal and this whole thing goes away.”
Amy Celico, who leads the China team at the Albright Stonebridge Group, said her clients are growing wise to, and worried about, these decoupling objectives. She recounted one conversation with corporate executives who asked, “Are the Trump administration’s tariff policies meant to punish China’s bad behavior on intellectual-property theft, or punish us for having global supply chains” that include China?
Read James Fallows on Trump and the China relationship.
The way Trump tells it, the United States is currently engaged in a long-overdue reckoning with China over its predatory trade practices that would never have come about had he not been elected president. But both Celico and Ratner told a markedly different story. Celico argued that it was Hu Jintao, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s predecessor, who first stoked trade tensions between the countries by restricting foreign involvement in the Chinese market and contravening commitments China made in joining the World Trade Organization in 2002. Ratner traced the conflict to the rule of Xi, who took office in 2012 and has centralized power at home and boldly pursued China’s interests abroad ever since. Ratner characterized Trump as “mostly an irrelevant figure” in the standoff Xi has precipitated, claiming that a Hillary Clinton administration would have also adopted a more confrontational approach to China even if that approach might have looked different from Trump’s.
“We are at the most challenging point in U.S.-China relations in about 30 years,” since the two countries fell out over the Chinese government’s brutal crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989, Celico said. There is a palpable sense in both Beijing and Washington that “this state of heightened tensions” is “going to be a new normal,” and the Trump administration may be acting out of the conviction that “if we don’t stand up to China now, we won’t be able to fight this even stronger country” later.
This profound structural friction—greater than any particular leader, be it Hu Jintao or Xi Jinping or Donald Trump—was vividly on display last week at the United Nations General Assembly, during which UN Secretary-General António Guterres urged world leaders to take seriously the threat of war between a rising China and ruling America and seek to avert it. In previewing Trump’s address to the United Nations, in which the U.S. president condemned China’s trade policies, National-Security Adviser John Bolton acknowledged that what was at stake was far larger than “tariffs and the terms of trade.” It was, rather, “a question of power,” since practices such as intellectual-property theft have “a major impact on China’s economic capacity and therefore on its military capacity … I think all of this goes to what will be the major theme of the 21st century, which is how China and the United States get along.”