U.S. President Donald Trump boards Air Force One to depart for Vietnam from Beijing Airport in Beijing, China. Photo: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. President Donald Trump boards Air Force One to depart for Vietnam from Beijing Airport in Beijing, China. Photo: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Donald Trump appears to be “going where no US president has gone before” on policies relating to China, risking a trade war with China with a 30% anti-dumping tariff on solar panels and considering a 24% or higher duty on aluminum and steel products. But appearances can be deceiving.

Trump also appears to be more “tough” on China in geopolitics: Labeling it a “revisionist power” along with Russia, Iran and North Korea. Nominating Pacific Command leader Admiral Harry Harris, a fierce China critic, US ambassador to Australia. Signing the National Defense Authorization Act, allowing US and Taiwanese naval vessels to visit each other’s ports.

These are not so unsubtle signs that Trump intends to be “tough” on China, perhaps as ways to pander to the hawks, his support base and campaign-fund contributors.

Who’s who list of China hawks

The senior government and military officials surrounding and advising Trump on China are unquestionably the most anti-China group in US history.

Admiral Harris warns that the US should prepare for a war against China. He accuses China of “illegally” building islands and installing military assets on waters within the “Nine Dash Line” in the South China Sea. In doing so, Harris claims China is blocking “freedom of navigation and overflight operations” and threatening the postwar US-imposed security arrangement that he (and some other US security experts) said “has served the region well.”

The problem with Harris’ charge is that China did not build the South China Sea islands until Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama made his “pivot to Asia.” Vietnam and the Philippines built islands first, though considerably smaller and less durable, and the Chinese islands were built inside the territory China has claimed since the Ming Dynasty if not earlier.

What’s more, the Chinese navy never stopped any commercial vessels on “freedom of navigation and overflight operations.” Why would it? most the the trade transiting that body of water is China’s, after all.

Parroting Harris’ words is Southern Command chief Admiral Kurt Tidd, testifying before the Senate Armed Forces Services Committee in February 2017 that the Belt and Road Initiative in Latin America posed a “national-security threat” to the US. But how China is “threatening” US security by investing in Latin America and helping  it develop unclear.

Moreover, Tidd should not be surprised that the “Monroe Doctrine,” which was designed to prevent European colonialism in Latin America, is unsustainable. Nations, like children, do grow up and choose their own destinies.

According to the Brooking Institution’s David Dollar, Chinese investment and trade, both exceeding $200 billion as of 2016, have played a pivotal role in Latin America’s economic development, for which it is thankful. But unlike the US building military bases to surround and threaten China, Beijing has not built any military bases in the Americas to surround the US.

Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray went further, claiming that Chinese scholars, students, tourists and businesspeople might be spying for China, when answering a question from US Senator Marco Rubio on Chinese influence in US universities. His answer is as ridiculous as it is dangerous, potentially creating racial tensions between Asian-Americans and the wider American community.

According to the Committee of 100, a group made up of prominent Chinese-Americans, most of the “espionage” cases against Chinese-American spies were largely racially based, only to be dismissed at a later date. For example, a Chinese-American hydrologist was cleared of the charge that she was sending “secrets” to a former colleague in China.

In any event, the hawks’ claims are nothing new and have never been substantiated, explaining why past presidents did not act on their campaign rhetoric. Bill Clinton, calling Chinese leaders “tyrants” and promising to be “tough” on them during his bid for president, made a remarkable U-turn once elected, traveling to China to improve relations. George W Bush’s labeling China as a “competitor” was more window dressing than real, as he scolded then Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian for unnecessarily provoking Beijing with calls for de jure independence. Trump is likely keeping that tradition.

No ‘Thucydides trap’

Scholars such as the University of Chicago ‘s John Mearsheimer and Harvard’s Graham Allison are wrong in predicting that war between China and the US is inevitable. The assumptions and historical data they used jumping to that conclusion do not apply to the US-China narrative.

First, China is not challenging US hegemony. On the contrary, it might be happy that the US has taken on a leadership role, freeing up resources to develop China’s economic and social institutions.

Second, the speculation that China is building a strong military to supplant US hegemony is to some extent based on America’s own history. It could be argued that the US spends lavishly on defense while neglecting its own domestic economic and social interests is to protect if not strengthen its “global leadership” role.

Third, a military conflict with China would be fought with intercontinental ballistic missiles each carrying multiple nuclear warheads. There is no reason to believe that any US president would risk mutual assured destruction just to promote the interests of the few or keep China in its place.

Trade war threat is just that, a threat

Trump fully realizes the harm a trade war with China could do to America’s economy. Indeed, his 30% tariff on Chinese-made solar panels has cost between 23,000 and 40,000 US jobs, according to the American Solar Industries Association. What’s more, one of the two US panel-manufacturing companies that the anti-dumping tariff protects is owned by Chinese interests.

The 50% tariff on washing machines and dishwashers is in fact also protecting another Chinese-owned company. A majority stake in Whirlpool, maker of KitchenAid, Maytag and other white goods, was sold to a Chinese  manufacturer Haier.

The Trump administration’s consideration of imposing a 24% or higher tariff on aluminum and steel would unlikely have a significant impact on China. For “national security” reasons, these Chinese-made products account for a small percentage of US imports. Canada might be more harmed because 60% of the US aluminum and steel imports are from that country.

To that end, Trump’s “tough” trade policies have little impact on the Chinese economy or hurt America’s more. Perhaps their real purpose is to preclude a full-blown trade war that could derail Trump’s “America First” policies.

Further, China can and has retaliated, mounting anti-dumping measures against US feed. More Chinese retaliatory measures can be expected if and when the US follows through with the tariff on aluminum and steel.

China has a formidable trade arsenal it can use against the US, such as not buying soybeans, beef, chicken parts, Boeing aircraft, General Motors and Ford automobiles, or other goods. Even US professional sports organizations – the National Basketball Association and the National Football League – are looking to China for growth. Moreover, China is merely a “contractor” for US brand-name consumer products such as Apple’s iPad. Those who think a trade war would hurt China more than it would hurt the US should think again.

There is no reason to believe that Trump, like his predecessors or successors, will mount a military or trade war against China. Indeed, he has already shown signs of fence-mending, inviting President Xi Jinping’s closest adviser, Liu He, to discuss trade issues. What’s more, Trump needs China’s cooperation in addressing the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue.

Ken Moak taught economic theory, public policy and globalization at university level for 33 years. He co-authored a book titled China's Economic Rise and Its Global Impact in 2015. His second book, Developed Nations and the Economic Impact of Globalization, was published by Palgrave McMillan Springer.

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