Trump’s trade war shows how China has lost all its friends in Washington
Beginning with Richard Nixon’s history-making visit to Beijing in 1972, subsequent administrations — both Democrat and Republican — worked to improve relations with Beijing.
But while there are many topics where Trump is an iconoclast, out of step with some of his Republican colleagues, let alone the Democrats, this is not it. Bipartisan consensus has swung hard against Beijing in recent years, with some opposition lawmakers in Washington even calling on Trump to take a harder approach.
“There is a broad hawkishness on China that straddles left, right, and center,” said Patrick Lozada, China director at the Washington-based strategic advisory firm Albright Stonebridge Group (ASG). “The problem with this consensus is that in the absence of a credible counter-argument, the actual facts on the ground can sometimes be lost as people compete to see who can be more hawkish.”
When Trump introduced new tariffs on Chinese products last year, there were complaints from top Democrats — that he didn’t go far enough.
Even today, as the expansion of those tariffs have started to bite both consumers and manufacturers at home, offering a tantalizing attack line for Democrats in 2020, criticisms from those in the party’s leadership are of Trump’s execution, not his target.
“The President is right to hold China’s feet the fire on this,” Senator John Barrasso told CNN on Wednesday. “They wouldn’t be negotiating at all if it weren’t for what the President has done … The President has his own timeline. I support what he is doing.”
“People have grown weary of Chinese trade practices, of technology theft. But it’s also a reflection of what’s going inside China … with the treatment of the Uyghurs, the abolition of (term) limits by the president. And it’s also because of strategic concerns such as the South China Sea and what China has done there.”
Lozada, the ASG analyst, said that “Beijing has failed to grasp the changing nature of US politics and the growing concerns about the slow pace of reform in China. When President Trump took office, they regarded him as a transactional businessman without taking serious his remarks about trade on the campaign trail and growing skepticism of China’s role in the global economy at all levels.”
Bipartisan China hawkishness isn’t only hurting Beijing on trade either.
Human rights, often an overlooked topic in relations with Beijing, have come back to the fore, along with calls for punitive sanctions that would further weaken China’s economy in the middle of a trade war.
In his opening remarks, CECC chair James McGovern, a Democratic congressman, said he believed “it is time for the United States to consider new and innovative policies to support the people of Hong Kong.”
Dangers of further split
Despite widespread skepticism and hostility towards China in Washington today, better bilateral relations in the past paid off for both countries. China’s economy exploded after it entered the WTO in 2000, and the US has long enjoyed the benefits of cheap Chinese manufacturing.
While relations are unlikely to sour to the point of actual conflict there is a risk of a new Cold War developing, with other nations forced to choose sides.
“Mr Trump is triggering a ‘reverse Nixon’,” Luce wrote. “Decades of convergence is going into reverse. It is happening at a speed that is taking even Americans by surprise.”
That was five months ago, and things have only sped up since then.