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Foreign Policy

Trump’s Collapse Clears the Way for Biden’s Revised China Policy

Jan 29, 2021

President Donald Trump’s self-destructive narcissism has culminated in the dramatic collapse of his political movement and opened severe rifts in the Republican Party. This, combined with the shift of Senate control to the Democratic Party, means that incoming President Joe Biden now has his way cleared to repudiate Trump’s “American First” nationalistic foreign policy and reinstate the longstanding commitments of previous U.S. governments to building a peaceful, cooperate, multilateral rule-based international system. 

Biden expresses this in his oft-repeated formula of rebuilding relations with America’s allies, who were typically treated more as adversaries during the Trump administration. Whereas Biden also proclaims his intent to be tough with China, Russia, and other perceived rivals of the U.S., he is more likely to return to “business as usual” according to the commercial interests of global American companies. For example, Biden is likely to ease away from Trump’s efforts to bully friends and foes alike using extraordinary tariffs in contravention of World Trade Organization (WTO) rules. 

This is likely to clear the way for an improvement of U.S.-China commercial relations, leading to a negotiated end to Trump’s trade war. Trump failed to gain meaningful concessions from Beijing because, like most powerful countries, China did not wish to capitulate under the pressure of unilateral demands. On the other hand, China’s recent negotiating stance with both the European Union and the U.S. indicate that China has in mind a number of concessions it is willing to make, but it wants something in return. 

During successive rounds of negotiations with the Trump administration, China responded to Trump’s unilateral demands with counterproposals of its own, which is the normal practice in trade negotiations. Durable agreements usually result when both sides benefit. Although we lack details of what went on in the private negotiations, indications are that Trump habitually ignored China’s concerns, while simply reiterating his own demands, which, as I have detailed in several previous articles, were often impossible or unlikely for China to concede. 

Ironically, many of China’s proposals involved returning to the rules-based system that the U.S. itself helped create during and after World War II, a system Washington supported until Trump. However, a major thrust of Trump’s policy was to reject the institutionalized infrastructure of the global trading system in favor of unilateral demands. Many referred to Trump’s approach as “transactional” rather than legalistic, but this is overly generous, as is now clearer than ever. He has no interest whatsoever of creating rules that would bind the U.S.—or bind himself as president. “Transactional” was a euphemistic synonym for lawless. He didn’t want new rules, procedures or institutions, just acquiescence to his unilateral demands. 

China’s recent negotiations with the EU show that Beijing is willing to make significant concessions to further open its economy to foreign companies, but only in the context of mutually binding rules, not as a concession to unilateral demands. The New York Times reported on 23 December that the EU and China had made substantial progress on key issues that have long bedeviled U.S.-China negotiations, including greater openness to foreign financial institutions and fully foreign-owned manufacturing subsidiaries in China. Under existing regulations, foreign firms there typically need a local Chinese joint-venture partner, making it harder for the foreign companies to protect their trade secrets and intellectual property (IP), such as copyrights and patents. As if to tantalize American business with the possibilities, Beijing in June 2020 approved JP Morgan for the first fully foreign-owned financial futures company in China. 

However, China is unlikely to offer a similar deal to the U.S. unless there are some carrots on the table, rather than just Trump’s figurative stick of extraordinary tariffs. The incoming Biden administration, knowing this, discretely asked EU negotiators to hold off on finalizing on a deal with China until Biden takes office so that the U.S. can coordinate with the EU and other major allies, like Japan and South Korea, on a unified approach to China, according to the Times report. If China really is inclined to embrace closer integration into the global economy, then it should welcome this multilateral effort to reach a comprehensive trade agreement that returns to the rules-based system that Trump overturned. 

Some may wonder whether the Trump era is truly dead. It is because Trump’s personality and lawlessness guaranteed that he would self-destruct rather than leaving office with his dignity intact. The mainstream media has long been in awe of the fanatical following Trump managed to inspire, but lacking a real understanding for the frustrations and anxieties that gave wings to Trump’s candidacy in the first place, they have since erred in the opposite direction, assuming Trump has some mystical superpower over his ever-enchanted base. 

The reality is more mundane. Trump merely pushed into overdrive tendencies long present among elements of the Republican Party. Instead of more subtle “dog whistles” blaming foreigners, racial minorities and immigrants for the nation’s economic woes, Trump proclaimed bombastically and without a shred of concern for facts or truth what many Republican voters found ecstatically reassuring: Trump posed as their champion against the corrupt Washington politicians coddling corporate donor elites, and boisterous non-white constituents ruining the future for much of the white middle class, feeling  insecure economically and despised culturally by the bicoastal elite. 

The Trump family, enjoying multi-generational immunity to profit from corrupt real estate practices, inured Donald against any embarrassment for lawlessness. He could openly brag about his unruliness, and thereby impress his disgruntled base that he might confer the same special powers to them that long enabled him to avoid adverse consequences for skating the law. If the system is thoroughly corrupt, then why not admire someone bold enough to grab what is rightfully his/yours? Prescient filmmaker Michael Moore characterized that many Trump voters saw him as the “hand grenade” they could throw at the whole rotten system. 

Yet the problem with lies is that they tend to proliferate until they imprison the teller in his own web. It was evident to me as early as 2016 that Trump could not understand what a competent political strategist does: discern the difference between lies that are politically expedient and those that eviscerate a self-destructive ego so completely that the liar’s grasp of reality is insufficient to discern his own best interest. This was Trump’s fatal flaw. 

Trump called his undisciplined rabble to war against his own Congress January 6th, the day it was constitutionally mandated to certify Joe Biden’s victory. The attack made no sense, except as a salve to Trump’s wounded ego. It had no chance of success. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, the collective military leadership of the U.S., made clear in a statement last Wednesday that they are loyal to the constitutional succession, not to their ill-starred commander in chief. They obey only “legal orders,” in accordance with the U.S. tradition of constitutional government. Making himself god-king of a mob is tragic for those who suffered or were duped, even unto death, but, like so many of Trump’s cockamamie schemes, it lacked any hope of victory. The Republican Party will be torn asunder for some years over the foolhardy farce of following Trump’s vain pretenses.

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