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Donald Trump Is Weak on China

Economically, militarily, diplomatically—the administration has failed to respond to the China of today and prepare for the China of tomorrow.
July 21, 2020
Donald Trump Is Weak on China
China's President Xi Jinping (L) and US President Donald Trump attend a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on November 9, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / FRED DUFOUR (Photo credit should read FRED DUFOUR/AFP via Getty Images)

One of President Donald Trump’s pitches for re-election has been that he is “tough on China.” Hugh Hewitt, an ardent Trump admirer, recently wrote a column for the Washington Post on the other side of this calculation: “Biden is the wrong choice to lead the West through Cold War 2.0.” Hewitt concluded by saying that “for those focused on the central issue—the existential threat to the country and indeed the West—the choice of Trump is obvious.”

If Trump were really “tough on China,” it would indeed give him an edge over Biden on this issue. But it just isn’t true: Trump is weak on China.

What is the nature of China’s threat to the West? Is it economic, military, ideological, diplomatic, clandestine, political, or moral? The correct answer is yes. And on all of these fronts, the Trump administration has been a failure.

Let’s start with the economic. So far, the “trade war” that Trump started with China in 2018 has had little effect on the overall trade picture. The two countries remain among one another’s largest trading partners, and while imports from China did fall in 2019, they only dipped to about the level they were at in 2016, and the so-called “trade imbalance” likewise only dipped to about its 2016 level.

The Trump tariffs have also not had the intended effect of helping U.S. manufacturing; in fact, according to a study by Federal Reserve economists, the tariffs have harmed manufacturing. And the tariffs have not significantly shifted American trade to other countries. This was the genius behind the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal that Trump abandoned on the first days of his administration: increasing the partnership’s members trading with each other to decrease their trade volume with China. The loss of the deal also meant the loss of an opportunity to draw Malaysia, Vietnam, and other signatories closer to the United States. And the administration has failed to replace it with a trade agenda for Asia of any kind.

Of course, China is not alone in having been slapped by the Trump administration with tariffs—other trading partners also have, including close friends and allies, from the European Union and the United Kingdom to Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam. This has led those countries to shift toward more trade with China.

And to round out the bleakness of the economic picture, China has long been a hub for investment because of cheap skilled labor. That is changing. Yet, the administration has made no attempt to encourage American and non-American businesses to move to other countries for investment to reduce China’s share of the global supply chain, even though there are countries who are begging for this policy, most prominently India.

On the military front, the Pentagon has been planning a force to deter China. And the administration has paid a lot of lip service to the military threat from China. In reality, however, it has been nothing but lip service. The U.S. Army has only one brigade ready to deploy if a conflict breaks out with another great power. This was true when Trump came into office, and it remains true today. But it gets worse. One of China’s most concerning military developments over the past decade has been its anti-access/area-denial system to prevent foreign penetration. The United States could respond by bettering our stealth technology, investing in electronic warfare and offensive cyber warfare, increasing the U.S. missile stockpiles, and developing more and better remote-controlled and semiautonomous weapons systems. So far, the Department of Defense has only emphasized the last one, and the Trump administration efforts in the other areas have been negligible.

More generally, the U.S. military suffers a terrible conventional inferiority against China. In 2018, the congressionally created Commission on National Defense Strategy offered, in its final report, a number of recommendations to redress that imbalance, but the Trump administration has largely ignored them—and in some cases even gone in the opposite direction. For instance, the commission called for the size of the U.S. military to significantly increase; the Trump administration has set forth no plan to do that. The commission recommended a further forward deployment of troops to Asia. Instead, as the Wall Street Journal reported last Friday, the administration is apparently planning on withdrawing troops from South Korea. The commission emphasized the importance of alliances; the Trump administration has pushed away and alienated many allies. The commission called for the development of submarines for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance purposes; that recommendation has also been ignored.

And, crucially, the commission noted that winning a war with China “would likely require a level of U.S. national industrial and public mobilization not experienced since the middle of the last century.” The Chinese learned this lesson from the example of U.S. mobilization before and during the Second World War, but we have failed to remember it ourselves. The Trump administration has so far been utterly negligent of an industrial mobilization plan.

Beyond the lack of visible policy action, there are other obvious ways to tell that the Trump administration is unserious about building a military that could—beyond any doubt—win a war against China. For one thing, many of the greatest Republican national security minds have been discouraged, fired, or blacklisted by the administration. Senior jobs are going to persons without sufficient knowledge of military affairs. And many other positions are going unfilled. The job of under secretary for readiness and personnel, for instance, was vacant from July 2018 until this past March. The position of comptroller—the Pentagon’s chief financial officer—has been vacant for a year now. In the three and a half years of the administration, there has been an assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific affairs for only two years. The under secretary for policy, arguably the second most important position in the Pentagon, was fired for abiding by U.S. law, and the nominee to replace him is grossly unsuited for the job.

On the diplomatic level, too, the United States has been falling behind. Beyond the habitual kicking of allies, the America’s failure to compete with China’s growing foreign investments and aid is boxing us out of the Third World, as well as international organizations, in favor of the Chinese. The example of the World Health Organization has been widely discussed, and the U.S. withdrawal from it is an admission by the Trump administration of its inability to compete with China in such organizations. But it’s not just the WHO. The leadership of international organization after international organization has fallen into the hands of Sinophiles or Chinese nationals during the Trump administration.

Meanwhile, Trump has failed to grasp the importance of the ideological component of our discord with China. He keeps praising the Communist Party chairman, Xi Jinping, as a friend whom he can get along with, while he has yet to mention any Chinese threat beyond trading disputes.

Meanwhile, China’s moral vulnerabilities could be turned to the strategic advantage of the United States, but the president has made no attempt to shame China and force it to choose between better domestic behavior and international isolation. The best opportunity for this is China’s persecution of Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang region. It was just last week that the news of China’s eugenic practices in the region broke, as well as leaked drone footage showing Uighurs blindfolded and with heads shaved being herded onto trains. Instead of challenging these horrendous human rights abuses, Trump has—as his former national security advisor John Bolton revealed—encouraged Xi to go ahead with them. On the matter of Hong Kong autonomy, Trump had over a year to create a deterrence against mainland takeover of the island by threatening punitive action. He could have created an international coalition—assuming anybody in the world would care to listen to him—to punish China. He failed, and now it is too late, with the introduction of China’s National Security Law for Hong Kong. Even now, he still can offer refugee status for Hong Kongers, but that would go against his xenophobic policies and impulses.

On the clandestine front, China has been mining U.S. citizens’ private data. In September 2017, Chinese hackers stole 143 million Americans’ Social Security numbers, credit scores, and other sensitive data. One suspicion is that they are going to use these data to compromise individuals in key positions in government. The Trump administration never punished China for this breach. In addition, it is widely believed that the Chinese are mining Americans’ data through popular phone apps, most famously TikTok (don’t let your kids download it!) but others as well. Again, the Trump administration has made no meaningful attempt to prevent this. Finally, while America benefits from spectacular offensive cyber capabilities, our government and private-sector capabilities are very vulnerable. Again, there has been no policy to address this situation. Instead, the administration’s considerable increase in cyber capabilities have disproportionately and overwhelmingly gone into offensive capabilities.

To be clear, I’m not arguing that the administration’s strategy on China is merely weak. Rather, I’m pointing out the obvious: that there is no strategy. There is no coherence beyond the rhetorical bluster of an imaginary toughness. As much as Trump’s defenders like to say that he is taking the Chinese threat seriously, neither he nor his subordinates are giving much attention to it.

Will Biden be tough on China? I hope, but I make no promises. Is Trump tough on China? Hell no!

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.