Trump and China: New realism or business as usual?

Donald Trump has emerged as the presumptive 2016 Republican nominee for US president and recently outlined his views on foreign policy, including how he would deal with China.

Asserting that America under the foreign policies of President Barack Obama no longer has clear goals, Trump singled out what he called China’s attack on American industry and wealth as a critical issue.

“Our president has allowed China to continue its economic assault on American jobs and wealth, refusing to enforce trade rules — or apply the leverage on China necessary to rein in North Korea,” Trump said. “He has even allowed China to steal government secrets with cyber attacks and engage in industrial espionage against the United States and its companies.”

On Sunday at a rally in Indiana, the candidate referred to what he called China’s economic “rape” of the United States through manipulating its currency to boost its exports.

The New York businessman has offered few specifics on how he would deal differently with China other than asserting on his campaign website that he would provide “leadership and strength at the negotiating table.” The goal would be to end the Great Wall of Protectionism” set up by China with tariff and non-tariff trade barriers.

Trump

Trump

Silent on Chinese military buildup

Trump, however, so far has not addressed China’s large-scale military buildup, including its development of new longer-range nuclear and conventional missiles, or it DF-ZF hypersonic glide vehicle that was recently tested and that US officials say is designed to penetrate advanced missile defenses.

DF-ZF hypersonic glide vehicle

Chinese DF-ZF hypersonic glide vehicle

On Chinese aggression in building up islands in the South China Sea, Trump has not outlined any national security-oriented solutions. Asked by the New York Times how he would combat Chinese assertiveness in the region, Trump suggested the use of economic power to alter Beijing’s behavior, again with no specifics.

“We have great economic — and people don’t understand this — but we have tremendous economic power over China,” he said. “And that’s the power of trade. Because they use us as their bank, as their piggy bank, they take but they don’t have to pay us back.”

More business engagement?

The comments suggest Trump as president would continue many of the business-oriented approaches toward China that have dominated relations between Washington and Beijing for successive administrations since the 1980s.

This approach is based on the questionable assumption that trading with a nuclear-armed communist dictatorship – even one that has all but abandoned its Marxist-Leninist economics but kept its Leninist political controls – eventually will produce a more benign and “normal” China. The approach has not worked, however.

Take two examples. Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has consolidated more power than any recent ruler since Mao, in September made two high profile agreements with the United States. Within months, China had violated both.

Woody Island runway, military facilities

Woody Island runway, military facilities

The first was the Chinese leader’s promise not to militarize some of China’s 3,200 acres of newly created South China Sea islands. Within months of the pledge, the People’s Liberation Army began deploying anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles and warplanes on Woody Island in the Paracels, claimed by both China and Vietnam.

Xi also formally agreed at the September summit in Washington, under pressure from Obama over widespread Chinese hacking of large data sets, that China would halt cyber economic espionage. Earlier this year, US intelligence leaders told Congress that Chinese cyber spying continued unabated.

 

The notion of trade with China as an engine of political reform has been a policy promoted by foreign affairs elites like Henry Kissinger and others. The idea for decades is that the supposed magic effect of trade and financial engagement with China would create a new middle class that would demand and receive more rights and freedoms from the government.

Instead, China’s leaders today are engaged in ideological warfare against what they see as an encroachment of western democracy and freedoms. At the same time, the party-led system in China is beset with pervasive corruption, as seen in the nationwide anti-corruption drive that has netted hundreds of Chinese officials, including several senior party and military leaders, jailed for economic crimes.

Hardline leaders in the party and military also are on the rise, with the backing of Xi, who has shown himself to be one of China’s more devoted adherents of the guiding state ideology of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong thought and who has continued to consolidate power as few leaders before him, while moving the Chinese system in a more totalitarian direction.

Beijing as strategic deceiver

Under Xi, China has been using strategic deception to lull the United States into falsely believing China poses no threat, at the same time Beijing has been covertly supporting rogue states like Iran and North Korea with arms and weapons technology.

Xi

Xi

Xi has warned in at least two internal speeches since 2013 that China is besieged by hostile US forces seeking to impose western-style democratic reforms on the country. Military leaders also regularly rail against the United States as a declining but still dangerous main enemy.

An example was the decision by China last week to block the visit to Hong Kong by the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis, amid tensions over the South China Sea. Despite being planned months in advance, the ship was turned away at the last minute, in apparent retaliation for the carrier’s visit to the disputed South China Sea last month. During the carrier deployment US Defense Secretary Ash Carter traveled to the ship and again asserted American intentions to sail or fly any place in the sea.

Trump is correct in identifying weak US leadership toward China as a key reason Beijing has become more assertive and belligerent. China’s leaders correctly see an opportunity to further diminish American power and the widely popular ideals of democracy and freedom while working to replace them with the Chinese authoritarian model that emphasizes prosperity under strict party-led controls.

Chinese DF-21D anti-ship missile

Chinese DF-21D anti-ship missiles

But the solution to the threats posed by China, whether in the South China Sea and against American government and private sector computer networks that have been pillaged for decades by Chinese hackers, is not as simple as conducting tougher negotiations, as Trump advocates.

The failed record of unfettered engagement with China on trade and economic issues has not solved the problems posed by increasing Chinese hegemony and threatening activities.

A more comprehensive strategy of countering Asia’s emerging superpower is needed. That strategy must be centered on American interests, as Trump correctly notes. But it also needs to understand the root cause of the threat as China’s unsustainable reformist-style communist system, combined with the growing trend of hardline People’s Liberation Army military leaders who appear increasingly eager to test out some of China’s rapidly expanding high-technology forces in a crisis, and thus trigger a conflict.

Bill Gertz is a journalist and author who has spent decades covering defense and national security affairs. He is the author of six national security books. Contact him on Twitter at @BillGertz

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