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Ying Ma Trump's TikTok order heats up China trade war. Can he still salvage a key relationship?

Trump served as a restraining force on a hard-lined national security policy during the first three years of his administration. But these days, he's allowing the China hawks to fly free.
Image: President Donald Trump greets China's President Xi Jinping during the G20 Summit in Osaka on June 29, 2019.
President Donald Trump greets China's President Xi Jinping during the G20 Summit in Osaka on June 29, 2019.Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images file

Is giving a big, aggressive speech on China now a requirement for the Trump administration’s senior officials?

In the span of about four weeks this summer, four of the administration’s Cabinet officers — the attorney general, the FBI director, the national security adviser, and the secretary of state — each gave a speech condemning Beijing.

The message was supposed to be clear: China is the most serious threat to America’s economic vitality, national security and global leadership. Except the message was not clear.

The message was supposed to be clear: China is the most serious threat to America’s economic vitality, national security and global leadership. Except the message was not clear. Trump administration officials who did not give speeches seemed to say as much with their silence as those who delivered the speeches.

On Thursday, President Donald Trump issued twin orders that would bar U.S. companies from doing business with ByteDance, the Chinese parent company of TikTok, as well as WeChat, a messaging app owned by Tencent. These orders are a notable new front in Trump’s trade war with China. But despite the tough rhetoric economically, Trump has actually served as a restraining force on a hard-lined national security policy toward China for the first three years of his administration.

Unfortunately, these days he is far more willing to let the China hawks drive an all-out, confrontational approach. At a recent White House press conference, Trump explained the shift, “I think our attitude on China has changed greatly since the China virus hit us. I think it changed greatly. It hit the world and it shouldn’t have. They should have been able to stop it. So, we feel differently.”

Maybe so. That, however, is very different from the strategy of constant confrontation and perhaps even a new Cold War toward which the administration’s China hawks are eagerly steering the country.

The problem with such a Cold War is that it could easily deteriorate into a hot one. But this has not deterred Trump’s national security team.

In his speech July 16, Attorney General William Barr condemned China’s efforts to dominate and militarize the South China Sea, which plays host to about a third of the world’s maritime shipping trade. He also criticized China’s “Belt and Road” initiative, which ostensibly offers infrastructure aid to other countries but in reality seeks to maximize Beijing’s strategic interests and domestic economic needs.

While China’s offenses are all real, one does wonder why America’s chief law enforcement officer was discussing foreign policy issues with strategic, economic and military implications. Since when did the South China Sea fall under his jurisdiction?

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offered some clarity when he delivered the final China speech of the bunch on July 23. “My remarks today are the fourth set of remarks in a series of China speeches that I asked national security adviser Robert O’Brien, FBI Director Chris Wray, and Attorney General Barr to deliver alongside me,” he said. O’Brien was tasked with discussing ideology, Wray with espionage, and Barr with economics.

In addition to discussing the South China Sea and the Belt and Road initiative, Barr warned of China’s drive for technological supremacy, condemned its predatory economic policies, and accused American firms of engaging in “corporate appeasement” of the Chinese Communist Party in exchange for access to a vast consumer market. Beijing’s bad behavior in these areas are well known, but is not economics the bailiwick of other administration officials, such as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow?

Did Mnuchin and Kudlow decline to come to the party because they do not favor decoupling the American and Chinese economies?

Did Mnuchin and Kudlow decline to come to the party because they do not favor decoupling the American and Chinese economies?

The confusions and contradictions in the Trump administration’s overall policy could be clarified easily by a comprehensive speech on China from the president. The fact that no such speech has occurred recently is evidence that Trump does not necessarily share his advisers' sentiments on China. Perhaps Trump does not wish to badmouth Chinese President Xi Jinping, whom he once dubbed his “very, very good friend.” Or perhaps he has little appetite for the multidimensional, generational confrontation with China his four Cabinet secretaries are now clamoring for. He has certainly never expressed affinity for Pompeo’s rallying cry, which is that America must lead free nations around the world to “[secure] our freedoms from the Chinese Communist Party” because that is “the mission of our time.”

Trump’s foreign policy advisers and the political establishment on both the left and the right regularly lament China’s unwillingness to become a more “responsible stakeholder” or deliver the political liberalization that Washington has long hoped for. Trump at times appears to be the only one in Washington who remembers that engagement with China was also supposed to bring trade benefits. His focus has always been on trade, and his refrain today is the same as when he ran for president four years ago: China ripped us off.

In some ways, a number of Trump’s tough actions against China — waging the trade war, imposing sanctions on Chinese technology giant Huawei, and this week, threatening to restrict U.S. market access to Chinese social media apps such as TikTok and WeChat — all reflect his desire to prevent China from stealing from the United States, whether it be personal data or market share. His interest is in trade; his national security advisers want to reorient the entire U.S.-China relationship to a comprehensive rivalry.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, it was unlikely that Trump would have blessed the recent onslaught of anti-China speeches from his administration. And for this, Beijing has no one to blame but itself. The virus, which originated in China, has wreaked havoc on the United States and the world, causing massive deaths and immense suffering, while thrashing a vibrant economy that Trump boasts of rebuilding. If Trump were to lose re-election, Beijing should bear a big chunk of the blame.

China’s bad behavior — espionage, intellectual property theft, aggression in the South China Sea, abuse of human rights, repression of civil liberties in Hong Kong, and much more — all deserve and have spurred pushback and punishment from American lawmakers. But the current approach — dismissing the entire pre-existing bilateral relationship as misguided while threatening or punishing China on every front — seems to offer few incentives for Beijing to bend to Washington’s demands or wishes.

Longtime China observer and former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd recently warned that before the November elections, there is a serious risk for actual armed conflict between the two powers — for the first time since the Korean War. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison was quick to splash cold water on the prediction, but even he acknowledged that a “hot” war is no longer inconceivable.

In the topsy-turvy world of great power competition in a deadly global pandemic, keeping the peace requires the president to once again step into a role his critics rarely give him credit for: as the restraining force on his administration’s China policy.