Few people today think much about the George W. Bush Administration prior to 9/11. The collective memory of the early Bush presidency is mostly condensed to the Bush v. Gore Supreme Court decision, followed by not much of interest until the 9/11 attacks. But it’s important to recall that the Bush Administration floundered on foreign policy during its initial year, including an ill-advised staring contest with China after a Chinese pilot collided with an intrusive U.S. spy plane and died, leading to the detainment of 24 U.S. air crew until the Bush Administration finally apologized to China for the incident. Until terrorism rearranged American foreign policy, increased tensions with China were the lead storyline of Republican foreign policy.
Donald Trump is still six days away from his inauguration and already he and the GOP are ramping up aggressive rhetoric against China. During the same Wall Street Journal interview in which he suggested he would be open to lifting sanctions on Russia, Trump also stated that he might revisit the “One-China” policy regarding Taiwan. This, of course, comes on the heels of Trump speaking directly with the President of Taiwan, which is unprecedented in U.S. foreign policy.
Meanwhile, Exxon CEO and Trump’s pick for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said during his confirmation hearing that China should be barred from the islands it has created in the South China Sea.
Needless to say, China is reacting angrily, warning Trump that the One-China policy is non-negotiable and that attempts to keep China away from its new South China Sea islands would cause a “devastating confrontation” and would lead to a “military clash.”
All of this is sheer madness. The American relationship with China is complex and problematic for many reasons: China’s human rights record is abysmal and its willingness to steal intellectual property is a significant problem for economies banking on an information economy future. But China is also a crucial trading partner, and the American and Chinese economies depend on one another’s good health.
The Trump team is taking a dogmatic oppositional approach based on very simplistic notions of trade and jobs. The number of jobs being “lost to China” is quite low compared to those being lost to automation, the best way to counter offshoring is to punish companies domestically rather than to threaten China, and the most effective avenue to protect intellectual property from Chinese theft is the very sort of trade deals Trump has consistently opposed. Adopting a hostile military and trade war footing with China threatens to plunge the world into an economic depression or even a brutal military and cyberwar conflict.
Moreover, the Trump team and attempting to create an alliance with the mafia state of Russia to box in China, which is woefully stupid. Russia and China have established a close relationship over the last decade, one that Trump is not going to be able to break apart. Taking sides with Russia against China is a fool’s bargain given that Russia is a declining and unpredictable power, while China is a rising and increasingly well-established one. But Trump sees in Putin a leader in the white supremacist isolationist movement, while China represents the Great Other of the globalized economy.
The choice to pick a fight with China while sidling up to Putin’s Russia is equal parts racism and sophomoric economics, and its consequences are likely to be disastrous. But it’s also a continuation of similarly Republican policy going back at least two decades.