Reciprocity has become the watchword for the Trump administration’s increasingly confrontational approach to China, from imposing limits on the movement of Chinese diplomats and journalists within the U.S., to banning Chinese-owned social media and messaging platforms TikTok and WeChat. The immediate goal is to impose costs for Beijing’s similar restrictions on the activities of American diplomats, journalists and tech companies in China, while insulating the U.S. from the potential security risks of Chinese tech companies that officially operate in the private sector but remain in thrall to the ruling Communist Party.
Beyond that, however, it is unclear what President Donald Trump’s long-term objective is. As with Iran, his administration seems to be intent on causing pain for pain’s sake, with little indication of what China might realistically do, short of regime change, to meaningfully respond to American concerns. More broadly, as the U.S. raises the stakes in its strategic rivalry with China, it would do well to keep in mind Friedrich Nietzsche’s warning: Be careful who you choose as your enemy, because that’s who you become most like.
From the start, the Trump administration’s approach to China was muddled by internal divisions, vacillating between the president’s obsession with redressing the bilateral trade deficit, efforts to reach more comprehensive remedies for China’s unfair trade practices, and a desire for a complete decoupling of the two countries interdependent economies. This confusion contributed to the lengthy standoff that preceded the “phase one” trade deal reached in January, as Beijing sought clarity on the Trump administration’s position, in vain.
Moreover, that deal did little to resolve the internal contradictions in Trump’s approach. It offered an incoherent mix of guaranteed Chinese purchases of U.S. goods to satisfy Trump, along with some vague commitments by Beijing to level the playing field for U.S. firms operating in China’s domestic market to partially satisfy hawkish advisers like U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer.
Plans to negotiate a follow-up “phase two” deal, though far from guaranteed to resolve their remaining differences, were upended by the coronavirus pandemic. As COVID-19 spread through the U.S. in March and April, Trump sharply escalated his criticisms of China, railing against the “China virus” in what many observers saw as an effort to deflect attention from his administration’s incompetent response to the pandemic. At the same time, his administration took a series of measures to ratchet up tensions, including closing the Chinese consulate in Houston over espionage charges; issuing a ban on TikTok; enacting punitive measures on Hong Kong in response to China’s new national security law there; and imposing sanctions on officials involved in human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
The problem is not that any of these measures are unjustified. They are, even if they are at odds with Trump’s previous willingness to ignore them to preserve his cherished trade deal. The problem is that they are not in the service of any broader, coherent strategy. Of course, the first requirement of any effective strategy is a clearly defined and achievable end goal, and that is once again what is missing.
Take Washington’s apprehensions over TikTok. While the stated concern is data privacy, the problem is not so much the data that TikTok amasses; it is the Chinese Communist Party’s access to it and Washington’s fundamental—and justified—lack of trust in how Beijing will make use of it. The same can be said for the security concerns over Huawei’s participation in developing next-generation 5G telecom infrastructure, which in addition to data could potentially provide access to sensitive intelligence transmitted over those networks. It’s hard to see, then, how the tech security issues might be resolved as long as the Chinese Communist Party remains in power.
The Trump administration has adopted measures that blur the sharp distinction between how the U.S. and China have historically approached international trade.
Seen in this light, the ban on TikTok looks more like a heavy-handed attempt to force a sale to an American buyer, one that bears some resemblance to the forced partnerships and technology transfers Beijing has imposed on U.S. tech firms operating in China. Washington has long complained about those shakedowns, and rightly so. Now it seems to have decided to copy them instead.
It’s not the first time the Trump administration has adopted measures that blur the sharp distinction between how the U.S. and China have historically approached international trade. At the outset of his trade war, Trump resorted to market-distorting subsidies to farmers to offset the drop in Chinese agricultural purchases that, not surprisingly, resulted from the tariffs. More recently, he has embraced elements of industrial policy, long anathema to free-market fundamentalists, to lure American firms to return production back to the U.S. And the forced Chinese purchases of a range of U.S. goods and agricultural produce provided for by the phase one deal amount to a limited experiment with a managed economy.
Since that deal is also a bilateral one, it offers no remedies to any of America’s allies and partners that are confronted by the same unfair Chinese trade practices. That mirrors the way in which Trump has conducted the trade war: as a bilateral affair, with no effort to build a coalition of like-minded states to confront China collectively. That was a strategic blunder, given how many of them have become increasingly wary of Beijing, especially since the pandemic hit, and would welcome the leverage such a coalition would offer them to address the imbalances in their own trade relations with China.
To add insult to injury, in parallel, the Trump administration has been pressuring America’s allies and partners to choose a side in the standoff. This is most clear when it comes to the campaign to get them to ban Huawei from their 5G networks. Trump went so far as to introduce anti-Huawei clauses into the unrelated diplomatic agreements he recently signed with Kosovo and Serbia.
If this campaign has met with only limited success, however, it is because as wary as many of these countries have become of Beijing, none of them can afford to give up the enormous benefits that trade with China still generates. For all the talk within the Trump administration of decoupling, in fact, most observers believe it’s an unrealistic goal even for the U.S., given the deeply embedded interdependencies between the two economies, as well as between China and the global economy.
As Howard French argued in his column last week, in order to compete with China, the U.S. must actually offer an attractive alternative when it comes to the public goods Beijing provides to partners, particularly in developing economies. That’s already a tall order given the differences between China’s state-led approach to foreign investment and lending, and that of America, which is dominated by the private sector.
But instead of trying, Trump seems intent on turning the U.S. into a cheap copy of China: a transactional and bullying partner that seeks only its own advantage, with little regard for the rules-based principles of trade it historically championed.