What a difference 83 days can make. That’s how long U.S. President Donald Trump was in office before he made a complete reversal on China trade policy — from vowing to beat up Beijing over trade abuses to offering preemptive trade concessions.
Like his predecessors, Trump has smashed into the hard reality that China isn’t easy to push around and is in fact a formidable contender in the global game of geopolitics. But in comparison to the others, he crumpled astonishingly fast.
The triggering crisis came last week when North Korea flexed its nuclear muscles a few days ahead of Trump’s summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping. China has long held out on fully cooperating with international efforts to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Trump appeared to offer Beijing a carrot to get it to finally use the full extent of its sizable economic leverage over its neighbor.
According to an interview Wednesday with the Wall Street Journal, Trump said he told Chinese President Xi Jinping at their meeting last week, “‘You want to make a great deal? Solve the problem in North Korea.’ That’s worth having deficits. And that’s worth having not as good a trade deal as I would normally be able to make.” Trump also reneged on his promise to label China a currency manipulator, saying, “they’re not currency manipulators,” despite his previous insistence that “they are the greatest currency manipulators ever.”
It’s a stunning reversal for Trump, whose pledges to rein in Chinese trade abuses formed a central plank of his campaign. He promised to label China a currency manipulator on his first day in office, and threatened to slap a 45 percent tariff on Chinese goods if Beijing didn’t cooperate. Ahead of the Trump-Xi meeting, the White House emphasized that trade policy would be a major topic of discussion between the two leaders. Trump is “very concerned about how the balance in our economic relationship affects Americans workers,” one senior White House official told reporters ahead of the meeting.
But the topics and tone of the conversation apparently shifted quickly when Xi explained to Trump the long history of efforts to contain North Korea and why the hermit kingdom remains such a vexing problem. “After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy,” the president told the Journal. “I felt pretty strongly that they had a tremendous power [over] North Korea. … But it’s not what you would think.”
This wouldn’t be the first time a U.S. president has come into office with hardline rhetoric on China only to soften after running up against the political realities of dealing with the most populous country on earth.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan declared that he would restore diplomatic relations with Taiwan, which Jimmy Carter had severed the year before to establish official relations with Beijing. That obviously didn’t happen. In 1992, Bill Clinton excoriated the “butchers of Beijing” and signed an executive order calling for improved human rights in the communist country. But by the end his eight years in office, Clinton was assisting China in its bid to join the World Trade Organization. Even Barack Obama, who was never particularly hawkish on China, softened his stance over the course of his two terms, first declaring that the United States should negotiate hard with China on trade and monetary issues, then by 2012 warning that the U.S. should not “embarrass” China by pushing too hard.
In fact, so many U.S. presidents have walked that well-worn path that it’s become a trope with which the Chinese themselves are well-acquainted. Following Trump’s election win, Chinese officials suggested to Foreign Policy that their strategy was to sit out the initial period of toughness while laying the groundwork for when the new administration would come around to a more pragmatic and diplomatic approach, as previous administrations have.
But the abruptness and extent of Trump’s about-face is, like much of his campaign and presidency so far, in a category all its own. China was not a footnote of his campaign. Trump mentioned the East Asian giant 23 times in his June 2016 announcing his run for the presidency — twice the number of times he referred to the United States. Bringing back jobs sent overseas, reducing the trade deficit with China, and getting fairer trade terms were cornerstones of Trump’s platform.
It’s not clear how Beijing will respond Trump’s offer of trade concessions. Chinese officials have given no indication that they see U.S. trade and North Korea’s nuclear program as linked in any way. And Trump’s gambit reveals that he may have underestimated China’s leverage. While the United States is China’s biggest export market, it’s the top trading partner of most countries in Asia, Africa and Central Asia. Meanwhile, China is a nuclear power with the third most powerful military in the world.
In Beijing’s eyes, Trump has undercut the credibility of his own threats and revealed himself to be a geopolitical neophyte who blinks in the face of crisis. Chinese officials now likely believe, as they have long suspected, that the man in Zhongnanhai has the upper hand over the man in the White House. Who can blame them?
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images