The U.S.–China trade spat is set to escalate this Friday, as Beijing has walked back some of its prior commitments to the Trump administration during negotiations between the two countries. In response, President Trump has promised to up the ante by increasing tariffs against Chinese products, a move sure to send a shiver down Beijing’s spine.
For decades, the political establishment allowed China’s unfair trade practices and hegemonic ambitions to go unchecked. But those failed policies of the past are no more. Trump is correct to stay resilient and hold Beijing’s feet to the fire.
Trump’s aggressive posture toward Beijing is consistent with his longtime concern that China poses a serious threat to American global dominance. “There are people who wish I wouldn’t refer to China as our enemy,” Trump noted in his 2015 book Crippled America. “But that’s exactly what they are.”
This tough-on-China mantra is in stark contrast to Trump’s Democratic opponents on the 2020 campaign trail. At a recent political rally, Democratic frontrunner and former vice president Joe Biden negged those who consider China to be a serious geopolitical threat to the U.S.
“China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man!” noted Biden said to the crowd. “Guess what, they’re not competition for us.” As out of touch as Biden’s statements may sound, his positions are fairly consistent with Washington’s old consensus on China. Repeatedly, political elites have argued that through trade and integration into the U.S. economic order, China would democratize, liberalize, and open for business.
It is clear that these long-held assumptions haven’t panned out. Rather than liberalize as its economy vastly expanded thanks to trade with the West, China has become more repressive and despotic and its markets have remained closed.
Nowhere is the fallacy better illustrated in than Beijing’s crackdown on its religious minorities, which the Communist Party sees as a legitimate threat to its hold on political power. Arrests of Christians in China skyrocketed from 3,700 in 2017 to 100,000 in 2018. Churches are frequently destroyed by the government, and the Communist Party has taken a hand in rewriting certain passages of the Bible it deems unacceptable. Persecution is likely to worsen as China’s Christian population continues to grow to an estimated 250 million believers by 2030.
Facing even more horrendous circumstances are China’s Uyghurs, a Muslim minority group located largely in Xinjiang province. Approximately 1 million Uyghurs are being detained in state-run labor camps, according to a report from the United Nations. The prisoners are forced to work for little to no pay in brutal conditions while being constantly harassed and indoctrinated. To reporters touring one such facility, a group of imprisoned Uyghurs was forced to sing “If You’re Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands.”
As China’s grip has tightened at home, its influence abroad has expanded. In accordance with President Xi Jinping’s “great rejuvenation” of the country, China has undergone a massive military buildup while applying pressure on its former vassal states. Chinese officials have announced their intention to confront U.S. military assets across Asia while flexing its muscles against old rivals.
Beijing hopes to use its newfound military strength to coerce its former vassals back into its sphere of influence. During a meeting with other Asian nations in 2010, China made that intention crystal clear. “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact,” China’s former foreign minister noted, looking directly at Singapore’s top foreign diplomat.
Considering the serious upper hand that U.S. policymakers have given to China, did American businesses and workers at least come out ahead too? Not exactly. American companies still face serious challenges in gaining access to Chinese markets and conducting business in China.
Beijing deploys tariffs and heavy subsidies to boost state-owned enterprises to beat out American firms. It uses extensive red tape and technology transfers against American businesses to upend fair competition. And one can’t forget Rust Belt communities that have seen massive numbers of manufacturing jobs move to China.
Given these challenges, it is imperative that Trump stays the course. Biden and company are still living in the same alternative reality that allowed Beijing to capitalize on American weakness to a point of no return. Trump is restoring balance to the relationship and recognizes the serious threat that China poses to the U.S.-led order.
Trump deserves credit for avoiding the mistakes of his predecessors and pushing back against China for its malign activities and empty promises.