Trump Dumping ‘China First’ Policies

It looks like America has a new China policy. On Thursday, the US sanctioned a Chinese bank and approved an arms sale to Taiwan, angering Beijing. Does the Trump administration care?

Probably not. Reuters reports that US officials believe President Trump is unhappy with Beijing and is thinking of trade actions against China. His frustration follows more than two months of generally unsuccessful attempts to get the Chinese to help Washington disarm North Korea.

“They did a little, not a lot,” said a US official, speaking anonymously to the news organization. “And if he’s not going to get what he needs on that, he needs to move ahead on his broader agenda on trade and on North Korea.”

Trump sang the praises of both China and its leader, Xi Jinping, after the pair met in Mar-a-Lago in early April. Xi “wants to do the right thing,” Trump said a few days after their get-together. “I think we had a very good chemistry together. I think he wants to help us with North Korea.”     

“Nobody’s ever seen such a positive response on our behalf from China,” Trump declared that same month. The American president, referring to Xi, proclaimed he had “absolute confidence that he will be trying very, very hard.”

That was April. How about June? On the 20th of this month, Trump surprised just about everyone by taking a markedly different line. “While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out,” he tweeted.

The tweet, observers recognized, signaled a new China policy. Less than a week later, the State Department did not give China another waiver and dropped the country to the worst ranking—Tier 3—in its annual Trafficking in Persons report, released Tuesday. The report, among other things, cites China’s use of forced labor from North Korea.

Now, many expect tougher American action on trade as well. China got a sweet deal from the Commerce Department in the agreement announced May 11. Technically, the 10-point plan represented the “initial results” of the Trump administration’s “100-day action plan” on trade, announced at the conclusion of the Mar-a-Lago meeting. The May 11 deal looked favorable for Beijing, indeed some believe it may well increase America’s trade deficit with China.

It’s unlikely the Trump administration will be so agreeable on July 16, when the 100th day of the 100-day plan arrives. “What’s guiding this is he ran to protect American industry and American workers,” said a US official to Reuters, referring to the president.

One assumes Trump thought he could leverage a favorable trade deal with Beijing for a serious effort on its part to rein in North Korea. Perhaps the president fancied himself as the master of the deal, but forbearance on predatory Chinese trade practices should never have been used as an enticement to get Beijing to pressure Pyongyang. Workers in, say, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin are not bargaining chips, and, even if they were, the tactic for various reasons was doomed from the beginning.

Now that it’s clear Trump’s April stratagem has failed, we will very likely see an across-the-board deterioration in ties between Washington and Beijing as Thursday’s actions on the Chinese bank and Taiwan arms sales suggest. The US is involved in disputes with China involving, among other things, cyberattacks, freedom of navigation, proliferation, and human rights, and the severity of the disagreements seems to grow with time.

Previous US administrations subordinated America’s interests and let these and other issues fester as they sought to integrate China into the international system. Trump, however, has announced he will not pursue what has amounted to the “China First” policies of his predecessors. In any event, the moment for resolution is upon us.

None of this is to suggest that Trump will solve these challenges to America’s satisfaction, but at least now there is the possibility of success.

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