Trump was on the precipice of declaring victory with his China strategy as recently as January, when he hosted senior Communist Party officials in a White House celebration of a modest trade pact. But the president has since shifted to attacking Beijing as an even greater danger than he suggested in 2016, when he said China had been allowed “to rape our country” on the march to becoming an economic powerhouse.
In a recorded address to the U.N. General Assembly in September from the White House’s Diplomatic Reception Room, Trump declared that, 75 years after World War II, fellow nations were again waging a “great global struggle,” this time against “the invisible enemy — the China virus.”
“We must hold accountable the nation which unleashed this plague onto the world: China,” he said.
Yet Trump’s renewed tough talk has served as a tacit acknowledgment that his vow to bring China to heel has failed, even as he seeks to convince voters that Democrat Joe Biden is not strong enough to stand up to Xi.
During Trump’s tenure, China has flexed its muscle — cracking down on democratic rights in Hong Kong, expanding the domestic surveillance and imprisonment of more than a million Muslim Uighurs, expelling foreign journalists, and shutting down a U.S. Consulate in Chengdu after the Trump administration forced the closure of a Chinese compound in Houston.
Meanwhile, on Trump’s signature issue, Beijing agreed after a fierce 18-month trade war to purchase $200 billion more in U.S. agricultural goods — a pledge now in doubt amid the pandemic — but made virtually no structural changes to its state-backed economic system that has put American companies at a disadvantage.
Trump has moved the U.S.-China relationship from one of skeptical cooperation to one of distrust and antagonism, leaving the world’s two major powers at odds on a range of economic and national security issues that are resonating around the globe.
White House aides liken the situation to President Ronald Reagan’s approach to the Soviet Union before its collapse, while Trump’s critics warn that he’s created a dangerously tense relationship born not of an overarching strategy but out of a chaotic and undisciplined style that has defined many aspects of his presidency.
Where they agree is that the future of the U.S.-China relationship after the election promises to be the defining foreign policy issue of Trump’s second term or Biden’s first.
The China question “is one of the most consequential,” said Minxin Pei, a China expert at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. Trump could “lock the two countries on a path to long-term, open-ended competition if he gets a second term. It could escalate into 20 to 30 years of cold war with lots of costs and dangers.”
Trump’s administration is already taking steps to begin decoupling the world’s two largest economies. During his own U.N. remarks, Xi delivered a rebuke, presenting China as a willing global partner.
“Burying one’s head in the sand like an ostrich in the face of economic globalization or trying to fight it with Don Quixote’s lance goes against the trend of history,” Xi said.
“We treated China like an enemy, we named them an enemy and we’re getting what we asked for,” said Daniel Russel, an Asia Society expert who was a high-ranking foreign policy aide in the Obama administration. Xi is facing his own domestic pressures, Russel added, “but what I don’t see is the kind of empirical evidence that he is reining in his ambitions or global strategy as a result.”
Trump aides strenuously dispute the notion that the president’s strategy has fallen short, arguing that a U.S. pressure campaign — including economic sanctions on Communist Party officials and moves to ban Chinese-owned telecom giant Huawei and social media company TikTok — is isolating Beijing.
U.S. lawmakers in both parties have shifted to favoring tougher policies. Majorities of those surveyed in 14 advanced nations now hold unfavorable views of China, and of Xi’s leadership, according to a new survey from the Pew Research Center.
China is “starting to engage in desperate opportunism,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal strategy. “They are a malevolent and an aggressive and a malign actor, and now that we are calling it out, they are trying to consolidate their gains through the most coercive means possible until the rest of the world joins us.”
But the standing of both countries has suffered during the pandemic. A median of 61 percent across the nations surveyed by Pew said China was doing a poor job in handling the coronavirus. Only the United States, with an 84 percent disapproval mark, fared worse.
Aides said Trump and Xi spoke twice in the early days of the outbreak, during which Xi offered “total reassurance that it was under control,” according to the administration official. Trump parroted that line in his public comments in January and February as the virus reached the United States.
Only in mid-March, with uncontrolled outbreaks in major American cities and his response under mounting criticism, did Trump shift his public tone, condemning China’s leaders.
Now, with Beijing waiting on the outcome of the presidential election in November, there’s “not a lot to discuss,” the Trump aide said.
There was plenty to discuss in April 2017 when Xi arrived at Mar-a-Lago for an elaborately staged first meeting at the president’s private resort in Palm Beach, Fla.
Trump had made China-bashing a pillar of his 2016 campaign, lambasting the bilateral trade deficit as evidence that Beijing had stolen manufacturing jobs and accusing China of undervaluing its currency, even though experts said Beijing had stopped doing so.
Inside the administration, aides were divided over lavishing Xi with a highly personalized summit, at which Trump’s granddaughter Arabella, the daughter of White House senior advisers Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, serenaded Xi in Mandarin. President Barack Obama had tried a similar move in 2013, shortly after Xi assumed the Chinese premiership, hosting him at the Sunnylands estate in Southern California, an effort most analysts judged as an ultimately fruitless attempt to establish openness and trust.
Trump’s summit “was built upon the assumption that personal chemistry would compel Xi to override his national interests,” said Ryan Hass, a Brookings Institution analyst who served as China director on the National Security Council in the Obama administration. “I’ve spent a fair bit of time around Xi, and he’s the most ruthless, coldblooded calculator of his national interests that I’ve ever met.”
State Department aides emphasized that dealing with Xi would be different from, say, former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, who had visited Mar-a-Lago two months earlier for a round of golf. For one thing, Xi does not play golf, which he banned for Communist Party officials in a crackdown on corruption.
But Trump’s closest aides were confident that the president’s self-proclaimed dealmaking skills would carry the day. On the agenda at Mar-a-Lago was setting a timetable for a trade package, as well as Trump’s hopes of enlisting Xi’s help in a new U.S. effort to disarm North Korea of its nuclear arsenal.
Yet if the stakes were high, the Trump team was not fully prepared. Robert E. Lighthizer, a China hawk whom Trump had nominated as U.S. trade representative, had not yet been confirmed by the Senate. That left Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in charge of the trade talks against a team of seasoned Chinese negotiators.
Chad Bown, an economist with the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said Ross “had no experience in trade and didn’t know the details of major policy problems between the U.S. and China.” Trump and his team “didn’t know what the core concerns were. The president definitely thought it was the trade deficit, but then they got schooled on issues of American companies having their technology forcibly taken. It took a while,” Bown said.
Despite the complex, structural issues, the two sides hashed out plans for a 100-day window to negotiate a pact to reduce the trade deficit.
Trump encouraged his aides “to elaborate on the range of offenses that China had perpetrated against us, particularly on the economic front and the security front, and to do it with candor,” the Trump administration official said. “There was no mystery for China about our priorities.”
As he plied the Chinese delegation with the chocolate cake, however, Trump had a surprise: News broke that the Pentagon had launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Syrian military sites in response to Bashar al-Assad’s domestic use of chemical weapons.
Then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and then-national security adviser H.R. McMaster rushed to brief reporters, facing questions over whether the timing was intended to deliver an implicit warning to Xi that Trump would be willing to take military action against North Korea if necessary.
Russel, who was still working at the State Department at that time, said Chinese leaders do not take kindly to being surprised by their hosts. More important, he said, Trump risked appearing reckless in front of an authoritarian leader whose trust he was counting on “to defang North Korea.”
“He diverted Xi’s focus from managing Kim Jong Un to managing Donald Trump,” Russel said.
‘I give China great credit’
The 100-day window expired without a deal, and by the fall of 2017 Trump’s foreign policy focus had shifted increasingly toward North Korea. In November, he flew to East Asia for the start of a five-nation swing, including a state visit to Beijing.
Over the first half of the 12-day trip, the president focused on his administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Pyongyang, tightening a vise of U.S. and international economic sanctions, including from China, on the North Korean regime.
Xi laid out the full trappings of ceremonial pomp for his American guest — a military procession at the Great Hall of the People and a private performance of the Peking Opera inside the Forbidden City.
Trump would later marvel at the spectacle. But it was another moment that revealed the extent of the president’s conflicted approach to China. Standing next to Xi at a joint appearance with U.S. business leaders, Trump foisted blame on past U.S. administrations for the trade imbalance and gave his hosts a pass.
“Who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country for the benefit of its citizens? I give China great credit,” Trump declared.
“He had said that privately so many times, it was just a matter of time before he said it out loud,” said Fernando Cutz, a former NSC staffer who served as senior adviser to McMaster.
Cutz said Trump routinely vacillated between the polar extremes of his China team, at times siding with moderates such as former economic adviser Gary Cohn and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and at other times with hard-liners such as trade adviser Peter Navarro.
“He campaigned under the premise it was all China’s fault,” Cutz said, “but he’s also been very much blaming former presidents for striking bad deals and saying he actually respects the Chinese for getting good deals for themselves.”
By the end of his first year, Trump was growing impatient, and hawkish aides had convinced him China was intent on luring the United States “into the same cycle of long-winded, formal dialogue that has worked with every other administration” to delay and run out the clock, the administration official said.
Trump had authorized his administration to conduct an inquiry into China’s theft of intellectual property, under a formal Section 301 investigation. And in March 2018, he signed a measure authorizing tariff hikes on $60 billion of Chinese goods, the opening salvo in what would soon become a full-on trade war.
Gordon Chang, a China analyst who has advocated an economic decoupling, said he never expected Trump’s personal charm offensive with Xi to pay dividends.
But Chang added: “What Trump did was — and this is the important part — when he saw China would not reciprocate, he started to defend America. He pivoted.”
The sanctions angered Beijing, but by then, Trump had less reason to worry: Two weeks earlier, he had agreed to a historic summit with North Korea’s Kim, downgrading China’s role in the nuclear talks.
Though China had tightened trade flows over its border with the North, Trump’s courtship of Kim had the unintended consequence of drawing Xi closer to the young dictator, analysts said. As Trump pursued three meetings with Kim over the next year, Xi held five of his own.
“That is not the trajectory that the China-North Korea relationship had been on,” said Hass, of the Brookings Institution. “There are costs and consequences to pursuing a chaotic, flood-the-zone approach to China. You need to set priorities and develop a sequence of actions to achieve them.”
‘Attitude,’ not strategy
It wasn’t just China scrambling to respond to Trump’s chaotic foreign policy. Allies, including Japan, South Korea and several European nations, were reeling from Trump’s use of tariffs to reopen trade talks and threats to dissolve long-standing defense agreements.
In his first week in office, Trump made good on a campaign pledge to yank U.S. support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade pact negotiated by the Obama administration as a bulwark against China’s rising economic clout. Over his first 18 months, Trump also announced plans to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal, both of which China has supported.
Trump also eviscerated globalism in a speech at the United Nations in 2018, saying that “responsible nations must defend against threats to sovereignty not just from global governance, but also from other, new forms of coercion and domination.”
Though U.S. allies had chafed under China’s aggressive economic practices, Trump did not enlist them in his trade war, going it alone as Washington and Beijing enacted rounds of tariffs totaling hundreds of billions of dollars.
“You have to make a distinction between President Trump and the Trump administration when it comes to China strategy,” said Pei, the Claremont McKenna College professor. “The president has an attitude about China and immediate political interests and a lot of tactics. But he does not have a strategy, which results in a lot of inconsistencies.”
That would become clear in 2019. Though U.S. negotiators thought they were on the precipice of a deal in early May of that year, Trump accused Beijing of reneging on commitments, and the negotiations broke down. That summer, Trump announced plans for a new round of $300 billion in tariffs on Chinese goods, prompting Beijing to cut purchases of U.S. farm products.
Behind the scenes, Trump was desperate to restart the talks. His reelection campaign was revving up and farmers, a key constituency, were being squeezed financially, contradicting his repeated pronouncements that income from the tariffs would reimburse them for lost sales. In fact, analysts said, it was U.S. consumers who would pay the freight in the form of higher costs. The Trump administration pushed through emergency legislative aid packages for farmers totaling $28 billion in 2018 and 2019.
Ahead of a global summit in Osaka, Japan, in June 2019, Trump reportedly sought to persuade Xi to resume trade talks by promising that he would not publicly raise the issue of mass pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. During their bilateral meeting in Osaka, the Chinese leader complained to Trump about a growing chorus of critics in the United States, according to a book published this June by John Bolton, the former White House national security adviser.
In Bolton’s account, Trump assumed Xi was talking about Democrats and assured him that a trade deal to buy more U.S. agricultural products would help him get reelected. In the same meeting, Trump appeared to offer tacit approval of the Communist Party’s jailing of the Uighurs in secretive internment camps in western China, according to Bolton, who cites an account from a U.S. government interpreter.
Trump denounced the book as a “compilation of lies.” But in an interview with Axios in June, Trump acknowledged holding off on human rights sanctions last year in hopes of keeping the trade talks going.
“His style is one that Zhou Enlai called ‘talking while fighting,’ ” said the senior administration official, quoting Mao’s top aide. “You open a channel to the very top of the dictatorship. . . . But at the same time, you take really tough actions.”
To Trump’s critics, however, the president has shifted human rights from a moral obligation into a bargaining chip.
As Washington and Beijing have pressed countries to choose sides, “the problem is not a question of whether those countries think China is good or bad. People understand the nature of China,” said a Democratic congressional aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid assessment of the administration’s goals.
“The question is whether or not there is actually an alternative,” this aide said. “If the choice is between two venal and corrupt powers, neither of which cares for international laws or norms, that’s not much of a choice.”
‘What has it achieved?’
Last December, with House Democrats pursuing impeachment over Trump’s pressure on Ukraine’s leader to open an investigation of Biden, the president announced a breakthrough — a “phase one” trade deal with China.
Under the terms, Beijing agreed to purchase an additional $200 billion in U.S. products over two years, while the United States held off on a scheduled tariff hike and relaxed some levies. The more challenging structural issues at the core of U.S. business concerns, however, would be tackled in “phase two” negotiations.
In January, flanked by a Chinese delegation, including Vice Premier Liu He, Trump extolled the deal in an East Room ceremony packed with Cabinet officials, lawmakers and business leaders — a display one analyst likened to an “Academy Awards acceptance speech.”
In a 48-minute soliloquy, Trump praised the Chinese for cooperating on North Korea and on efforts to combat the illicit flow of fentanyl, and he exuberantly suggested that Xi celebrate with a round of golf.
Liu then recited a more businesslike, but still warm, letter from the Chinese leader. “I will stay in close touch with you personally,” Xi promised.
Within 10 weeks, the two had stopped talking altogether, a casualty of the coronavirus pandemic.
Trump has sought to shift blame to China over the U.S. outbreak, which has killed more than 214,000 Americans. The president has accused Beijing of deliberately spreading the virus to other countries, and administration officials have suggested, without evidence, that the virus originated in a Chinese laboratory, rather than at a wet market in Wuhan.
The friction prompted Trump to issue a green light on a more coordinated pressure campaign. In July, the president used a Rose Garden ceremony to announce sanctions on Chinese officials for the crackdown in Hong Kong. The administration dispatched high-level officials to Taiwan in a show of solidarity, shuttered the Chinese diplomatic facility in Houston, slashed visas for exchange students and pushed to force a sale of TikTok’s U.S. operations.
Trump also cut U.S. funding for the World Health Organization over its coddling of China in the early days of the pandemic.
“I don’t see how anybody can argue we’re not in a better place. We are actually pushing back. We are defending ourselves,” said Tim Morrison, an Asia security expert at the Hudson Institute who served on the NSC from 2018 to 2019. “We’ve started to clamp down on all the vectors in which we are being attacked.”
But critics said the president squandered years in a costly trade war. A pair of studies last year from the Federal Reserve and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, respectively, concluded that the dispute did not restore U.S. manufacturing jobs and that the tariffs added annual consumer costs of more than $800 per household.
China already is lagging on its purchase commitments under the phase one deal. The U.S. trade deficit grew in Trump’s first two years in office before dipping to $345 billion last year — on par with 2016.
“What has it achieved? I really don’t see anything,” said Susan Shirk, chair of the China program at the University of California at San Diego, who served in the Clinton administration. “Have we shaped China’s behavior in more positive ways? Much the opposite.”
The Trump administration official compared such criticism to doubts over Reagan’s harder line against the Soviets, whose Communist leadership dissolved three years after he left office.
“I would argue that some of the even more nakedly aggressive rhetoric and actions from China are a result of us putting costs on their behavior and speaking candidly,” the senior official said. “Candor was the thing Reagan knew was in and of itself a powerful tool in dealing with a Marxist-Leninist dictatorship. Trump has been extremely candid.”