I once had a great job in Hawaii. The institution had a worthy mandate, educating military officers drawn from throughout the Asia-Pacific about regional security. The staff was dedicated, and the students were serious and hardworking. Together we did great work, and, of course, it was Hawaii.
Then we got a new director whose unofficial credo was, “If it ain’t broke, break it.” Within 18 months, half the staff had left or been fired, the mandate was destroyed, and the place became a shadow of its former self. The director subsequently retired with a nice fat pension.
This seems to be President Donald Trump’s doctrine when it comes to Asia. His “America First” national security strategy – if we can even call it a “strategy” – threatens to trash 70 years of alliance-building in the region and guarantee a hostile China for years to come. Oh, and cause grave harm to the US economy in the bargain.
Trump and the ‘Indo-Pacific dream’
To be sure, Trump has long been hostile to China, and the country has long been his favorite whipping boy. Beijing’s “unfair and unequal” trade imbalances, intellectual property theft, product dumping, currency manipulation, and predatory industrial policies are longstanding grist for Trump’s outrage mill. This rage and resentment go back decades, the only difference being that China seamlessly replaced Japan as the object of his ire when it came to supposedly unfair trade practices.
As president, however, Trump’s stance on Asia initially seemed like a continuation of several past US administrations, including Barack Obama’s “pivot.” Trump’s enunciation of his so-called “Indo-Pacific dream” – a “free and open Indo-Pacific” – revealed at the 2017 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, sounded a lot like a re-commitment to traditional US goals of regional peace, development, and democracy.
At the same time, there is a lot of continuity in criticizing and standing up to countries in the region who threaten the status quo. This includes a nuclear North Korea, but particularly an increasingly aggressive China, whose militaristic actions in such places as the South China Sea were undermining regional stability and security.
But calling out China as a strategic competitor is truly Trump’s strong suit. While he is hardly the first president to censure China as a rising geopolitical rival, but he has certainly been the loudest and most consistent.
Trump’s ‘in-your-face’ confrontation with China
Again, none of this is particularly controversial or very different from how most past US presidents have tried to deal with Beijing, simultaneously trying to contain but also engage with China when it came to dealing jointly with mutual security concerns (like North Korean nukes). With Trump, however, it is much more of an “in-your-face” confrontation.
In the first place, this is because, for Trump, politics – and especially global politics – is all about economics, particularly his own particular blend of populism, neo-mercantilism, and protectionism. In keeping with his “America First” strategy, economic security has become synonymous with national security, and therefore economic deals are often paramount.
Not surprisingly, therefore, Trump’s policy approach toward the Indo-Pacific is mainly centered on trade and investment, and this puts China very much in Trump’s crosshairs.
Too often it seems that Trump has no coherent strategy when it comes to China, that he is simply acting (or reacting) on gut impulse
With Trump’s foreign policy so focused on economic issues, China has inevitably emerged as the principle “bad guy” in his administration. Since he places economics as the co-equal to national security, the “China threat” is both economic and political-military.
In particular, China is weaponizing its economic clout. According to the 2018 US National Defense Strategy report, “China is a strategic competitor using predatory economics to intimidate its neighbors” in order to “reorder the Indo-Pacific region to [its] advantage.” In addition, it argues that Beijing is utilizing “aggressive” investments and other economic activities in the areas outside the Indo-Pacific region, particularly Latin America and Africa, in order to pull these regions into the Chinese “orbit.”
The insanity of a tariff war
But more than anything for Trump, the Sino-American rivalry is about trade, and trade is a zero-sum game, and America is losing.
Which brings us to Trump’s suicidal tariff war with China. Last week, Trump rashly placed tariffs on $200 billion dollars worth of Chinese imports. Ignoring the basic economic truth of tariffs (that it is your own citizens, and not the importing country, who are actually paying for them), Trump’s blind populist-protectionist policies are threatening to send the US into an economic slide.
China has retaliated with its own tariffs on US goods, while the Dow Jones Average dove more than 2% in just one day. To be sure, China will be hurt, but not as much as the US. China has stopped importing soybeans from American farmers and started buying from Brazil, while US farmers are going bankrupt at a record pace.
China can buy jetliners from Airbus; in fact, soon it may be able to build its own passenger jets. But the US cannot produce televisions or computers or furniture or tube socks – or at least, not cheaply and not right away.
Does Trump even know what he’s doing?
Too often it seems that Trump has no coherent strategy when it comes to China, that he is simply acting (or reacting) on gut impulse. He has tricked people, literally for decades, into believing that he is some great business genius; recent revelations in The New York Times of his billion-dollar losses during the 1980s and 1990s show that he was anything but.
Also typical of Trump, when faced with his own cognitive dissonance, he doubles down and pushes back. He has come to believe his own press kit and all the lies it contains. Only now he threatens to bring the US down with him.