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Foreign Policy

Trump Faces China: Some Unsettling Thoughts

Dec 22 , 2016

Oblivious to Tradition and Good Sense

President-elect Donald J. Trump’s unconventional approaches to policy making is already making news. In foreign affairs, tradition calls for the president or president-elect to consult the State Department for background information and talking points and the intelligence community for daily briefings. Trump prefers to pick up the phone and chat with a foreign leader, tweet an opinion, or make an off-the-cuff remark about a controversial issue. The trouble is, any of these acts might run directly counter to longstanding U.S. foreign policy, causing misunderstanding and possibly rifts. You can’t flatter a dictator, comment on another country’s domestic affairs, praise one country at the expense of another, or bring family members into high-level meetings without consequences. Trump has done all these, and more, and as president he seems determined to continue the practice.

 Substituting such practices for conventional diplomacy can only be understood with reference to Trump’s “art of the deal,” where winning is everything. Negotiating is not between equals and is not about compromise—it’s a test of power. A rejected offer may lead to retribution. Ethical considerations are meaningless— what counts is getting what one wants. In Trump’s world, the nation’s business is intertwined with his personal business. That reality opens up a vast arena for conflicts of interest, not just for Trump’s business empire but also for the far-flung business activities of several of his nominees for cabinet-level positions. 

Trump on China During the Campaign

“These are not our friends. These are our enemies.” That was Donald Trump in an interview with Wolf Blitzer of CNN in 2011. Throughout the campaign, let’s recall, Trump had harsh words like those about China, even while insisting that he “likes” and “loves” China. What he said revealed very limited understanding of Chinese views, sensitivities, and motivations.

For starters, Donald Trump doesn’t know much about China. He hasn’t been there, and so far as I’m aware he hasn’t studied it or brought in anyone with experience in China beyond Henry Kissinger. His sole story, meant to convey his expertise on China, is that he sold an apartment in Trump Tower to a Chinese bank tenant for $55 million. As a result, “I have a great relationship with China…I know China.”

Second, contrary to the “great relationship” with China, Trump believes China is raking America over the coals through trade deficits and currency manipulation. In his words, China “is a country that is ripping off the United States like nobody other than OPEC has ever done before.” And: “China has gotten rich off us. China has rebuilt itself with the money it’s sucked out of the United States and the jobs that it’s sucked out of the United States.” Such narrow-minded thinking can lead to confrontational policies. 

There is also false posturing here. Trump himself profits from Chinese investors in his properties and from Trump products made in China. And while Trump may think he’s gotten one over on the Chinese, as in the Trump Tower apartment deal, the fact that the tenant is a Chinese state entity—the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China—raises a potential conflict of interest.

Third, Trump evidently believes that China’s rise will falter unless it gives in to U.S. demands:

No, it [a trade war] will cause a depression in China, not here. China is making all the money. We’re not making the money. I mean, look at the numbers. Look at the – look at the difference as to what we import compared to what they’re importing…It’s like day and night. I like getting rid of that kind of a partnership. I mean that’s called we’re losing a lot of money. I like getting rid of it…The fact is they’re laughing at our leadership, and we’re letting them get away with murder.


It seems that in Trump’s mind, everything China does is suspect. Take climate change, for example: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” Political scientists call that the bad-faith model, which automatically excludes the possibility that Trump’s view of China can change no matter what the Chinese do. But scapegoating China clearly resonates with Trump’s supporters.

What does Trump propose to do about China?  His campaign produced the following program, which is notable for its oversimplifications and emphasis on bullying tactics:

Bring China to the bargaining table by immediately declaring it a currency manipulator. (“What would I do [about China]?” Trump was asked by Rush Limbaugh. “I would tell China that if you don’t straighten out your manipulation of the currency — and I mean fast; I mean really fast — we are going to tax your products 25%. Now, what that will do is two things. Number one: Immediately will start doing our own manufacturing. We don’t have to make toys that are coated with lead paint in China. We can make good toys in Alabama and North Carolina.”)

Protect American ingenuity and investment by forcing China to uphold intellectual property laws and stop their unfair and unlawful practice of forcing U.S. companies to share proprietary technology with Chinese competitors as a condition of entry to China’s market.

Reclaim millions of American jobs and reviving American manufacturing by putting an end to China’s illegal export subsidies and lax labor and environmental standards. No more sweatshops or pollution havens stealing jobs from American workers.

Strengthen our negotiating position by lowering our corporate tax rate to keep American companies and jobs here at home, attacking our debt and deficit so China cannot use financial blackmail against us, and bolstering the U.S. military presence in the East and South China Seas to discourage Chinese adventurism.

In short, Trump says, “China is killing us.” He cannot conceive of the possibility that U.S.-China tensions, whether on trade or the South China Sea dispute, are the product of both countries’ actions and therefore subject to diplomatic resolution. Nor does he seem willing to accept changes that have occurred in Chinese policy, such as on currency valuation, that are favorable to the United States. Trump has a one-sided mind, seemingly incapable of grasping nuances, acknowledging honest differences, and seeking common ground. 

One China?

Trump broke with longstanding precedent when he held a telephone conversation with Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen, the first conversation between two leaders since the 1979 when the U.S. recognized the PRC and broke ties with Taiwan. Contrary to Trump’s insistence that “The President of Taiwan CALLED ME” to offer congratulations, official Taiwan sources said the call had been arranged in advance and was distinctly political in nature. Supporting that view, a Washington Post report said the call “was planned weeks ahead by staffers and Taiwan specialists on both sides, according to people familiar with the plans.” In fact, Trump’s pro-Taiwan advisers said they deliberately wanted to send China a message that the old Taiwan policy might change if China’s policies on currency, U.S. investments in China, the trade deficit, North Korea, and the South China Sea did not change. Trump underscored that message by publicly questioning the One China policy that has guided U.S.-China relations for nearly forty years. “I don’t know why we have to be bound by a One China policy unless we make a deal with China,” he said. In short, give me what I want or the one-China policy is up for grabs.

Trump may intend to use Taiwan for leverage—blackmail might be closer to the mark—but China is also putting Trump on notice. The Chinese press has carried stories indicating that although positive U.S.-China relations are most important to Chinese leaders, further steps that are contrary to the One China principle will be resisted. The Chinese press is also publishing views of the United States that mirror Trump’s negative view of China, viewing the U.S. electoral process as evidence of U.S. decline, lacking of trustworthiness, and serious social division. Gone is an early idealism about Trump, which probably had more to do with negative regard for Hillary Clinton than with a serious estimation of Trump. 

China’s chief concern is that U.S. policy will shift to supporting Taiwan’s independence—an issue that has produced crises in U.S.-China relations, but that eventually resulted in Bill Clinton’s “three no’s” in U.S. policy toward Taiwan. Beijing is unlikely to get “three no’s” from Donald Trump unless it makes substantial concessions in return. How secure will Taiwan be if China refuses?

Trump’s embrace of Taiwan is reminiscent of George W. Bush’s strong support of Taiwan early in his presidency when he authorized a major arms sale. But before long Bush accepted the One China Principle of his predecessors and backed off from a shift on Taiwan. It’s not clear that Trump will do the same. (In December, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a defense authorization bill that called for the Secretary of Defense to approve annual “senior military exchanges” with Taiwan.). Trump may just be testing the waters, but if he believes he can pressure China, he’ll find that Beijing does not respond well to pressure tactics or blackmail.  China’s seizure on December 15 of the U.S. Navy’s unmanned research drone in international waters may be just a preview.

The Wrong Horse

As Fareed Zakaria points out, Trump has his international focus precisely backwards. It is China, not Russia, that deserves “accommodation.” China is far more vested than Russia in the world economic and political order—the South China Sea controversy notwithstanding—and has an economy many times larger than Russia’s. China has not been interfering in other countries’ elections via cyber attacks and other methods, has a huge trade relationship with the United States, and has a military budget about three times the size of Russia’s. At every level of international interaction—Tracks I, II, and III—U.S.-China relations are substantially deeper than U.S.-Russia relations.

In short, Trump is backing the wrong horse. Getting tough with China will be a huge disservice to both countries, and could spell trouble for the entire Pacific region. The U.S. and China need each other on several issues of global concern, starting with climate change and security on the Korean peninsula. Unfortunately, Trump does not yet have around him advisers versed in Chinese or Asian affairs. Let’s hope he finds some experienced hands before it is too late. In the meantime, he would be well advised to heed President Obama’s comment that the one China policy “goes to the core of how they [the Chinese] see themselves and their reaction on this issue could end up being very significant.”

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