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China Being Wrong Doesn’t Make Trump Right

Trump’s retreat from global responsibility has enabled China’s malevolence.
April 17, 2020
China Being Wrong Doesn’t Make Trump Right
Donald Trump makes his way from the podium after the daily briefing on the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, in the Rose Garden of the White House on April 15, 2020, in Washington, DC. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP) (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

For those with eyes to see, there can be no doubt that the negligence and corruption of the People’s Republic of China are chiefly responsible for the pandemic that is cutting a swath through the world. The Chinese authorities responded to the outbreak by deliberately lying about the disease and punishing doctors and disappearing journalists who told the truth about it. The result has been a pathogen that hit the world at full force instead of being prevented or at least arrested in first the weeks after it erupted.

In the wake of the coronavirus, some Republican commentators and policymakers have argued that Trump has been vindicated by China’s botched response. True, his term seems to have marked a certain departure from the conception of China as a “responsible stakeholder” that previous American governments once hoped Beijing would become. But some commentators go further, alleging that Trump’s brinksmanship with China has somehow redressed the toxic trade imbalance of “Chimerica,” or even seized the initiative in the opening phase of this budding Second Cold War.

This is arrant nonsense. The Trump presidency has been an abject catastrophe for America’s interest in leading and strengthening the liberal world order. The broad success of that order was never a forgone conclusion. From the beginning, it required wise statecraft and principled commitment. In the aftermath of World War II, far-sighted American leaders reckoned with the wages of isolation and determined that the devastating blunder of “the unnecessary war” should not be repeated.

To those architects of American power, it was obvious that they could not help their country without helping others. Refusing the false consolation of national egoism, they understood that no state, however strong, could furnish any kind of lasting order by attempting to subordinate others. Instead, they fused liberal nationalism together with cosmopolitanism to build a freer, more prosperous and more peaceful world for all. This commitment led to the creation of a plethora of international institutions–the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT, which eventually evolved into the World Trade Organization), NATO–to serve the purpose of constructing a durable world order.

But these institutions are flawed and frayed instruments. They are vulnerable to the political machinations and economic clout of powerful member states, as well as corruption and incompetence from within their own bureaucracies. It has long been a Chinese ambition to gain bargaining power within these institutions, and it is hard to miss the progress that China has been making toward that objective. Its undue political influence has been manifest in the way the World Health Organization (WHO) hesitated to declare COVID-19 a public health emergency of international concern. WHO officials amplified Chinese officials’ initial claims that the virus posed no danger of human-to-human transmission.

As the WHO has acted as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Chinese Communist Party, President Trump’s habit of kowtowing to Chairman Xi has been no less pronounced.

A disturbing trend throughout Trump’s presidency has been his ignorant nationalism. His oft-stated concern for national sovereignty, which almost never extends to ordering punitive measures against hostile states, including China, that interfere in America’s democratic process, has proved hollow yet again.

The outbreak of this pandemic has revealed the perils of our excessive reliance on Chinese supply chains for crucial medical equipment. It is an urgent matter for America to wean itself, as well as its foreign partners, from this noxious dependency before it’s too late. But what has the Trump administration done in service of this laudable objective? It declared costly and ineffective trade wars against both China and its own allies, from Canada to the European Union. Thus, instead of laying fresh global supply chains among trusted allies without dangerous Chinese inputs, it has heaped obloquy on the very principle of alliances and diminished the potential for countervailing power against the Chinese regime.

The international organizations established in wake of World War II are ripe for reform. But they rest on the principle that international cooperation is essential for global welfare. However imperfect the mechanism, that principle will not go out of fashion. And yet this is a principle that Trump has always defiled and subverted. As China seeks to advance its undisguised national interests and challenge liberal democratic ideology, the United States has responded by . . . what? Even in this latest crisis, China has encountered little concerted pushback from America and its allies. The PRC has not even shuttered its wet markets. Who is going to compel it? 

The unvarnished scorn emanating from this White House for U.S. global leadership has left allies alarmed and enemies emboldened. The Trump administration has repudiated America’s responsibility for world order and surrendered America’s obligation to lead. This is all evident in U.S. policy toward China, where the proclaimed instinct to defend the national interest has seldom been translated into a coherent or consistent policy. The Trump administration has not reduced economic interdependence with China in trade and investment, or expanded America’s alliance network in the Asia Pacific, or enhanced American credibility against foreign aggression.

In the long-ago age B.C.—Before Coronavirus—one of Trump’s greatest blunders occurred in the first week of his presidency when he recklessly abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Although Trump called TPP “a rape of our country,” the trade agreement had in fact been negotiated under two previous presidencies not merely for the sake of bringing to market cheap consumer goods but to contain growing Chinese power.

As then-Vice President Joe Biden noted in 2016, the 12 economies linked by the TPP “account for 30 percent of global trade, 40 percent of global GDP, and 50 percent of projected global economic growth.” It was on this basis that Biden pointed out that the agreement was “as much about geopolitics as economics.” Perhaps in due course, Biden, now the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, can see fit to remind the public of this considerable gift that Trump presented to Beijing through deplorable diplomacy.

The crucial contest between democracy and autocracy has also recently shifted in Beijing’s favor—hardly a surprise given Trump’s contempt for republican institutions at home and abroad. For evidence of this radical defect in American diplomacy, look no further than the president’s cold indifference last year to Hong Kong’s democratic protesters bravely demonstrating against suffocating interference from the mainland. Or consider Trump’s unwillingness to challenge China over human rights abuses, especially its appalling detention of more than one million Muslims in internment camps.

Since the dawn of this century, America’s position at the apex of world power has been in jeopardy given the growing economic and military might of China. To maintain a world order conducive to American interests and American ideals under these frightening circumstances will require the United States to develop a national consensus that favors a strong military and a vigorous pursuit of national interests, broadly construed. Toward that end, it must cultivate international partnerships and retain the confidence of badly needed allies.

Pulling up the drawbridge to the world will not stop the export of aggressive nationalism any more than it has stopped infectious disease. Against the formidable strength of China—and as the world is treated to more depredations from the world’s largest one-party statethe principles undergirding U.S. global hegemony will not only continue to apply but are more urgently needed than ever before.

A powerful and malevolent China with vast ambitions is not a reason to avoid the world, but to engage and lead it. Isolationism and Fortress America is the wrong strategic concept. China’s impulses for national greatness as defined by the Chinese Communist Party will only be tamed by a form of global governance (and guardianship) that is within the scope of the United States to marshal.

Such enlightened and magnanimous leadership in this crisis would have seen Washington coordinate a global response to diminish the severity of the disease and constrain its duration. However partially and imperfectly, such coordination would have made a world of difference, mitigating the global death toll as well as curtailing untold material devastation. Instead, President Trump unleashed a torrent of drivel and deceit that hurt the American response.

If Republicans believe, as they often say they do, in the strategic challenge posed by China, then it is time they find a realistic and sustainable strategy to deter and repel it. It should go without saying that the president’s short-lived gambit of stoking atavistic emotions by referring to the “Chinese virus” does not meet this stringent standard. From its inception, the “America First” policy of containing China was based on an erroneous premise: that China could be effectively countered by bluster alone, or even by the United States alone. In point of fact, Chinese power and perfidy will be repelled by a robust international alliance organized and led by the United States, or it will not be repelled at all. 

Brian Stewart

Brian Stewart is a New York-based political writer. Follow him on Twitter @bstewart1776.