Shadow Government

Trump’s China Policy Is a Paper Tiger

Trump has proved to be a paper tiger with China, making himself look weak in the eyes of Chinese leaders, which, in turn, will embolden China’s own assertive behavior.

A Chinese magazine with a front page story naming US President-elect Donald Trump as their Person of the Year is seen at a news stand in Beijing on December 29, 2016. / AFP / GREG BAKER        (Photo credit should read GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images)
A Chinese magazine with a front page story naming US President-elect Donald Trump as their Person of the Year is seen at a news stand in Beijing on December 29, 2016. / AFP / GREG BAKER (Photo credit should read GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump spent a lot of time during the campaign criticizing China, and promising to get tough on China if elected president. In just his first few weeks in office, however, Trump has proved to be a paper tiger with China, making himself look weak in the eyes of Chinese leaders, which, in turn, will embolden China’s own assertive behavior.

During the campaign, Trump consistently lashed out at China, making the case that the United States didn’t know how to deal with China. Bad trade deals were a prime focus for Trump, who said, “the money they’ve drained out of the United States has rebuilt China.” When it comes to the United States’ handling of North Korea and the South China Sea, Trump claimed that “China’s toying with us.”

But as president, it appears that Trump doesn’t know how to deal with China. During the transition period, Trump took a shot across China’s bow by questioning the One China policy — the premise that Taiwan is a part of China, which had undergirded U.S.-China relations since the 1970s — and by taking a call from Taiwan’s president. This was a heretical act from China’s perspective, one that could have sabotaged U.S.-China relations.

Trump justified his stance on Taiwan by saying that he did not see why the United States had to be “bound by the ‘One China’ policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things.” Some likewise spun his actions as a strategic ploy to shake things up and gain leverage with China on other issues, such as trade.

After Trump’s Taiwan remarks, U.S.-China relations were off to a rocky start. As President Trump began the usual series of initial calls with leaders from around the world, according to The New York Times, “administration officials concluded that Mr. Xi would only take a call if Mr. Trump publicly committed to upholding the 44-year old policy.”

And so, merely three weeks after his inauguration, President Trump reaffirmed the One China policy in a phone call with President Xi Jinping. In other words, Trump’s first act as president with respect to China policy was to fold in his own first bluff with China. And despite Trump’s claims to know how to negotiate with China, he seems to have gotten nothing in return for backing down on his previous One China statements.

To be clear, in deciding to support longstanding U.S. policy, President Trump took a very necessary step to avoid potentially destabilizing consequences with China. But the messages that China will take away from this event are clear and not good for U.S. interests: An ill-informed and irresponsible U.S. president backed away from a threat with nothing to show for it. Even the official White House readout of the phone call between Trump and Xi admitted that Trump had to give in: “President Trump agreed, at the request of President Xi, to honor our ‘One China’ policy.”

The lesson China will likely take away is that Donald Trump’s threats are not to be taken seriously.

This incident would be bad enough of a start by itself. But President Trump decided in his first week in office to unilaterally weaken the U.S. position with China by withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. The goal of TPP was to provide the United States advantageous trade relationships with key Asian partners in a region where China’s trade relationships were expanding rapidly.

If Trump really wanted to get tough with China on trade, he would have pushed to improve the TPP to advance America’s economic position in the region and give himself more leverage in trade talks with China. By simply canceling U.S. participation in the TPP, Mr. Trump gave China a gift, and again got nothing in return.

The ramifications of these initial stumbles could be significant. Not only will China believe that the new U.S. president can be pushed around, but China will also believe that it can get away with being more assertive in bullying its neighbors. Likewise, U.S. allies and partners in Asia will have less confidence that the new administration can be relied upon to stand up to China, sapping U.S. credibility in the region.

From North Korea to the South China Sea, trade issues to cyber-security, there is no shortage of thorny challenges in the U.S.-China relationship that may require the new U.S. administration to get tough. Handing away U.S. leverage in the relationship with China is not the right way to get started.

Photo credit: GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images

Michael H. Fuchs is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. From 2013 to 2016, he was a deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.

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