With deaths and infection rates from the pandemic surging and the U.S economy suffering, President Donald Trump and his administration seem to have come up with an alternative plan for the reelection campaign: a call to arms against China. Only five months ago, Trump was praising his Chinese counterpart and “very, very good friend”, Xi Jinping, for his “hard work” and “transparency” on the coronavirus outbreak, hailing a supposedly “momentous” phase-one trade deal, and declaring the U.S.-Chinese relationship to be “the best it’s been in a long, long time.”
Now, instead of flattering China’s leadership, Trump has pivoted to a policy of trying to remove it. The administration has begun to portray China as an implacable and determined “totalitarian” enemy whose goal is to destroy the American way of life and impose a Marxist-Leninist ideology on the world—a threat from which only a second Trump term can save us. The administration rolled out its new strategy last week in a series of increasingly inflammatory speeches, culminating in Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s July 23 address at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library. Pompeo declared that 50 years of engaging China had failed, denounced Xi as a “true believer in a bankrupt, totalitarian ideology,” and warned Americans that “Communist China is already within our borders.” Ominously, Pompeo insisted that “we must induce China to change”—or else “Communist China will surely change us.”
Whether heating up the rhetoric against China succeeds as an election strategy remains to be seen, especially in light of the administration’s overwhelming record of internal divisions, inconsistency, and policy failure toward China over the past three and a half years. But the threat is real, and leaders of both parties have sounded the alarm at the actions of an increasingly assertive China that tries to use its growing economic clout to bully weaker states, regularly breaks international rules to further its own agenda, and represses dissent at home. Whatever the electoral consequences, however, what is certain is that the new rhetoric and prescriptions are counterproductive and dangerous to U.S. national security. Pursuing regime change in China without realistic prospects for achieving it will do nothing to moderate China’s behavior at home or abroad—while worsening bilateral tensions, increasing the risk of outright conflict, and making already serious problems even harder to resolve.
Pompeo’s core premise is that past U.S. administrations pursued “blind engagement” with China in the naive hope that the country would liberalize and cooperate with the West. It is true that abandoning Cold War confrontation in favor of a more constructive relationship in the early 1970s did not lead to domestic political reform as some optimists had hoped. But as the China scholar Alistair Iain Johnston recently demonstrated, the presidents who engaged with China, including Nixon, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, were not hopeless romantics. They did not engage China primarily to promote human rights or to democratize the Chinese but to promote U.S. economic and security interests. Nor did they hesitate to challenge China when U.S. interests were threatened—from the Clinton administration’s deployment of aircraft carriers off Taiwan to the Bush administration’s sanctions on Chinese banks for supporting North Korea’s nuclear missile program to Obama’s freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea.
It was a nuanced, bipartisan China strategy that paid off in many ways. In the two decades prior to the opening with China, it fought against the United States in the Korean War and Vietnam War, abetted nuclear and missile proliferation, supported “liberation” movements in the so-called Third World, and closed its markets to U.S. goods. The establishment of diplomatic relations hardly made it an ally of the United States or erased the profound differences between the two counties, but the benefits of not having China as an enemy have now endured for so long that they are largely taken for granted. If Pompeo’s rhetorical assault stokes the fire of Chinese nationalism and leads to unrestrained military and political competition, as looks increasingly likely, the benefits of engagement will once again become apparent.
Even in economic terms, Pompeo’s suggestion that the American people have nothing to show for 50 years of engagement with China is, like so many of the Trump administration’s claims, at odds with the facts. It is certainly true that China has tried to exploit the benefits of open trade without always reciprocating, and U.S. leaders should have done more to push back and to help defend American companies and workers hurt by China’s actions. But the notion that trade with China has been a one-way street overlooks the benefits that two generations of Americans have reaped from importing affordable consumer goods, low-cost inputs for high-end manufacturing exports, and growing U.S. export surpluses in services and agricultural products. China has been among the fastest-growing destinations for U.S. exports anywhere in the world for more than two decades, sustaining hundreds of thousands of U.S. jobs. According to a study by Moody’s Analytics, Trump’s trade war with China has already cost the United States an estimated 300,000 jobs and an average of around $600 per household from higher prices; the idea that U.S. consumers or exporters would benefit from cutting off trade with China even further is deeply misguided. The response to problematic Chinese trade practices is to join forces with U.S. allies in Asia and Europe to address them, not to pursue a failed tariff war or the fantasy of “decoupling” the two economies in ways that would hurt American workers, farmers, and consumers.
The administration is on more solid ground when it emphasizes that the United States can’t face the China challenge alone and should work more closely with fellow democracies to counter China’s practices. But that argument rings hollow from an administration that has spent the past three and a half years weakening U.S. alliances by extorting Japan and South Korea to pay more for U.S. troop deployments, unilaterally canceling military exercises with South Korea, berating European allies as “worse than China,” questioning NATO defense guarantees, and imposing tariffs on trade with allies and partners in Europe, Asia, and North America alike. Pompeo’s statement that China has been “alienating potential allies [and] breaking trust at home and abroad” might have been more accurately leveled at the administration in which he serves.
Nor is the Trump administration well placed to make the case against the Chinese government’s serious human rights abuses in Xinjiang or Hong Kong when Trump himself has so egregiously downplayed human rights around the world and was willing to remain silent on Hong Kong in the hopes of getting a trade deal. Trump will not easily rally the “free world” to stand up to China’s “tyranny,” to use Pompeo’s language, when he is simultaneously cozying up to dictators abroad and undermining democracy at home. Engaging and honoring Chinese dissidents, as Pompeo has done, is admirable, but it is unlikely to win many Chinese hearts and minds if the administration is simultaneously indiscriminately kicking Chinese students out of U.S. schools, preventing Chinese citizens from visiting the United States, terminating student exchange programs, and blaming China for the administration’s own manifest failures to take even the most elementary steps to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, which Trump calls “the China plague.”
In portraying China’s leadership as Leninist ideologues working against the interests and desires of the Chinese people, Pompeo no doubt sought to align the Trump administration with former President Ronald Reagan’s spirited challenge to the Soviet Union in the 1980s. But while the United States and the world would clearly be better off with a different kind of leadership in Beijing, the real question is how best to bring that about—and how best to pursue U.S. interests in the meantime. The rising China of 2020 is not the declining Soviet Union of 1986. And notwithstanding their deep differences, the United States and China share common interests, including dealing with pandemic disease, climate change, and sustaining global economic growth. There is no small irony in Pompeo criticizing past administrations for the fantasy that they could change China through openness and trade while suggesting somehow that change will be brought about by harsh rhetoric and isolation—an approach that has not exactly succeeded for Trump in Iran, Venezuela, or Cuba.
Americans need to be clear-eyed about the challenge from Beijing. China is run by an authoritarian government that threatens its neighbors and does not respect widely accepted values of human rights and self-determination. Washington should not hesitate to stand up for its values and call out Beijing for its indefensible human rights violations and trade practices. But Americans should also have more confidence in their own ability to resist Chinese propaganda and outcompete Beijing. Rebuilding the United States’ domestic strength and unity—and leveraging rather than alienating democratic allies—would be a more effective approach than wishful thinking that rhetorical assaults from top U.S. officials will magically transform the Chinese regime.
Trump and Pompeo may hope that bellicose assaults on China will distract from the administration’s woeful handling of the pandemic or inspire fearful Americans to vote for an administration that promises to take on Beijing. Whether that can swing the election in Trump’s favor is doubtful. What’s certain is that Cold War-style confrontation risks exacerbating the very problem Trump and Pompeo claim to be so determined to solve.