The Establishment Goes Trump on China

President Trump takes part in a welcoming ceremony with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, November 9, 2017. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)
A new consensus is emerging, and it sounds a lot like what the president has said all along.

Read recent essays on China. Visit think-tank public symposia. Hear out military analysts. Talk with academics and media pundits. Listen to Silicon Valley grandees. Watch Senate speeches and politicians interview on television.

The resulting new groupspeak is surreal. If one excises the word “Trump,” what follows is a seemingly revolutionary recalibration of attitudes toward China that more or less echo Trump’s voice in the wilderness and often crude and shrill warnings dating back from the campaign trail of 2015.

Trump’s second secretary of state, the skillful Mike Pompeo, has been institutionalizing the president’s pessimistic view of China. Insightful but heretofore underappreciated assessments from China scholars such as Miles Yu and Gordon Chang are now being taking seriously. Both have been warning us for years that the Chinese seek domination, not accommodation, and are replacing their erstwhile feigned respect for our strength with an emboldened contempt for our perceived growing weakness, whether real or psychological. Both have warned also that once China achieves military, economic, and cultural parity with the United States, the global order will be quite different from that of the last 75 years.

From the military, one hears more frequently now that we were at a tipping point by late 2016: The Obama Asian pivot had failed — publicly provocative, but in reality without substance, giving the lethal impression of real weakness masked by empty rhetoric. The Chinese militarization of the Spratley Islands was conceded as the inevitable future of the South China Sea. Chinese military and weapons doctrine was aimed at destroying the offensive capability of the U.S. fleet in the Pacific as a way of breaking off allies from America, and then Finlanding them.

From 2009 to 2016, our defense readiness was eroding, China’s increasing. Psychologically, the American military could not reassure the global order that China would not one day soon unleash North Korea, absorb Taiwan, emasculate South Korea and Japan, or isolate the Philippines and Australia. Huge and mercantile Chinese trade surpluses with all its Western trading partners were accepted as normal.

The cash-short Pentagon seemed to shrug that America was the victim of cosmic and historic forces that inevitably would dethrone the United States, analogous to the declinism of the 1930s, when a powerful U.S. 7th Fleet was not able to deter a modern rising Japanese navy from carving out what would become the Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere based on perceptions of American impotence and weariness and spent European colonialism.

In Silicon Valley, the good old news of making trillions of dollars over the last 30 years in outsourcing assemblage to China, opening up a huge new Chinese consumer market, and entering joint partnerships has insidiously been eclipsed by the growing reality that our techie masters of the universe were instead deluded Dr. Frankensteins who had helped to birth an unstoppable monster.

Technology was stolen, either by espionage inside the U.S. or by formalized theft as the cost of doing business inside China. Copyrights and patents did not bother China. The scale of environmental damage inside China did not diminish, but accelerated and was manifested abroad. There was no sense of symmetry; in dealing with China, the idea of commercial reciprocity, shared environmental protocols, generalized notions of international commerce — all that simply did not exist. And the reason it did not exist wasn’t sloppiness or insensitivity; it did not exist by design, owing to the Chinese’s arrogance that they were the rising sun and the U.S. was in its twilight — with a few exceptions granted to some of the Western elite who were getting rich largely by accommodating the Chinese warping of trade and technological theft.

Financially challenged colleges and universities had come to rely on full-tuition-paying Chinese students. When stories spread that some Chinese students were acting as organs of the Chinese Communist Party, actively engaging in espionage, or illiberally bullying any critics of China, colleges either ignored such news or regarded its bearers as racists and xenophobes.

Chinese college students who mouthed government talking points were strangely rebranded, in identity-politics fashion, as the victimized Other, and to be accorded the usual accruing exemptions. In sum, China was considered a politically correct entity. Or better yet, it was seen as a cash cow for struggling liberal-arts colleges and so properly immune from any suggestion that it sent thousands of its citizens abroad to absorb or expropriate Western technology without contamination from taboo liberal ideas. While the U.S. obsessed over “Russian collusion” from a thuggish but comparative weak Vladimir Putin, no one worried much about the increasingly boldness of Chinese espionage and cyber sabotage. In Tolkienesque terms of relative threats, Putin played Saruman to a Chinese Sauron.

This willful blindness was similar again to the denseness of Europe and the United States from 1880 to 1920, when Japan had sent tens of thousands of students and liaisons abroad to learn everything from nautical and aviation engineering to assembly-line fabrication and sophisticated steel production. The West, in condescending and racist fashion, was flattered: Such emulation must be proof of Japan’s inferiority and desires to become a Westernized (albeit junior) free-market democracy.

In fact, Japanese expropriation was done in a context of arrogance and bitterness over not receiving commensurate recognition after World War I. Japan assumed that whatever was stolen from the West could be improved by superior Japanese discipline, order, and national unity and purpose — far better craftsmanship without the drag of research-and-development costs.

Our diplomats for decades had assured Americans that Chinese trade imbalances, technological theft, gratuitous bullying in the air and sea, disdain for U.S. Asian allies, rampant espionage, and contempt for the postwar commercial order were 50-year-old “growing pains” — the Tiananmen Square road bumps on the inevitable path to liberal society and consensual government.

The arrogant Western idea was that just as free-market economics (rather than jaded mercantilism, dictatorship, and government monopolies) had enriched the Chinese, so too would the accruing bounty “liberalize” Chinese society, ensure an “aware” consumer class, and impress on the country that Western popular culture and politics were just as inevitable and attractive as had been Western profit-making. Or economists and investors insisted that cheap imported Chinese goods meant that the stagnant wages of the middle classes would not matter so much at Walmart — while American business would be forced to be leaner and more efficient to survive the cutthroat competition.

The net result was to ignore or contextualize China’s civil-rights abuses, contaminated products, religious persecution, flagrant international aggression, attacks on the postwar global order, neo-colonialism, and abject racism on the grounds these sins were comparable to our own 19th-century bouts with such illiberality — or in some perverse way in the long run even beneficial to the United States.

Again, American finance and corporations invested full bore in Chinese joint projects, offshored, and outsourced — often at the price of giving away key American technological and strategic advantages, hollowing out American red-state industrial and manufacturing capacity, and weakening the nation’s cyber and conventional military security.

The idea seemed to be that if a few thousand multimillionaires got even far more fabulously rich by acquiescing to Chinese mercantilism, they could not do real harm to the vast and powerful U.S. Or perhaps, given inevitable American decline, the idea was that they should get their profits in now, before the American golden goose was put out of its misery.

In all these areas and more, a new consensus, among left and right, is now settling in that we are at a crossroads with China. Any more appeasement and acquiescence will lose the West its Asian allies, who will be forced to go with the ascendant superpower, not the declining one.

Either the U.S. military recalibrates or it will return to its 1930s stature of a powerful but vastly overextended Pacific navy and air force. We have reached a cultural nexus at which any more acquiescence would institutionalize the idea that to object to Chinese piracy is to indulge in hurtful stereotypes and therefore should be replaced with appeasement, and that giving away American technology or allowing its expropriation with a wink and nod is not treasonous but simply good business.

The establishment would like to fool itself that it came to its growing about-face on China thanks to a natural exhaustion of patience, or new data, or brilliant new exegeses. And that evolution may be in part true.

But far more likely, Trump’s early and relentless hammering on Chinese mercantilism, systematic cheating, and illiberality finally made the old status quo unsustainable in the face of mounting evidence.

The establishment is adopting Trump’s once-renegade stance toward China, and yet trying to immunize it from him all the same. So the end result seems something like the following: “That idiot Trump somehow now agrees with us on confronting China.”

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