Shadow Government

Here’s What a Progressive China Strategy Would Look Like

Trump’s trade war won’t put Washington on strong footing to compete with Beijing.

U.S. and Chinese flags at the Qingdao free trade port area in China's Shandong province on May 8.
U.S. and Chinese flags at the Qingdao free trade port area in China's Shandong province on May 8. Stringer/AFP/Getty Images

On Friday, U.S. President Donald Trump imposed steep tariff hikes, more than doubling the penalties on some $200 billion worth of Chinese goods and promising harsher measures to come. China pledged to respond in kind. It seems that an agreement remains more elusive than ever as tensions continue to escalate.

So far, the U.S.-China talks have raised more questions than they have answered. Can Trump force China to abandon its bad economic and trade practices? Will the final outcome be worth the pain inflicted on American farmers? Will the United States wind up in a strong position to compete with China or on weaker footing than ever?

The deal currently in the works, according to the details that have emerged thus far, primarily seeks to pair a few big purchase agreements to reduce the trade deficit with promises on China’s part, some of which the United States has heard before, to curtail its most egregious abuses, including intellectual property theft and forced tech transfer. It does not appear to address China’s broad industrial policy program—particularly subsidies, joint venture requirements, and other policies designed to privilege Chinese firms over their U.S. counterparts in global supply chains—in a meaningful way. These, not the trade deficit, are the larger long-term threats to the United States and its allies. Americans should not allow Trump’s last-minute tariff bluster to cover up the fact that his administration may well give China free pass on issues that should be at the top of the priority list for any deal.

As Trump’s deal takes shapes, the idea of competition with Beijing has seized Washington. This strategic shift has been a long time coming, driven mostly by China’s own actions, particularly its predatory economic practices, aggressive military posturing in the South China Sea, and increasing willingness to use its growing economic clout to bully smaller nations on issues ranging from human rights to 5G infrastructure. And unlike almost everything else in Washington these days, the growing concern over the scale of the China challenge is bipartisan. That said, there are real differences over what to do about it.

Instead of Trump’s chest-thumping, short-term approach, the United States should pursue a smarter strategy that better positions the American people to compete and succeed in this century—one that also leverages China’s growing capabilities to address global problems such as climate change and that limits its ability to exploit the United States’ open system, without losing sight of America’s democratic values.

The United States needs to focus as much on what it does in Michigan and Ohio to compete with China as it does on the South China Sea. Over the last 20 years, the United States has been consumed by costly wars in the Middle East and South Asia. The country has allowed its infrastructure to decay, stood by while its education system deteriorated, and allowed its political discourse to descend into a dysfunctional abyss. China, on the other hand, has made massive investments in education, research and development, military modernization, and artificial intelligence. It is now poised to overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy and is steadily closing the military gap.

The sheer scale of the challenge posed by China is going to require a far more purposeful connection between U.S. domestic policy choices and foreign-policy aims—a task that will require a new approach to national security and economic policymaking that reaches well beyond the walls of the White House Situation Room. A U.S.-China relationship that works for the United States will ultimately be driven by how educated and healthy Americans are, whether their children and grandchildren have viable futures, whether the United States continues to dominate scientific research and higher education, whether the country has functioning infrastructure, whether it can maintain a thriving immigration system to sustain its economic growth, and whether its democratic institutions remain functional and resilient. In sum, the United States needs to get its own house in order instead of launching a bilateral trade war that imposes real costs on the American people for very little gain. In 2018, the Trump tariffs collectively raised American consumer and producer costs by $68.8 billion and reduced U.S. real income by $7.8 billion. Instead of imposing costs on Americans, the government should instead be investing in them. The United States should launch a national competitiveness initiative that includes moonshot investments in research and development, once-in-a-generation public infrastructure investments, and significant tuition assistance for graduate education in science, technology, engineering, and math degrees. That would get Beijing’s attention.

As would a return to working collectively with allies and partners. Trump’s unilateral approach to taking on China has alienated those whose help is necessary to compete more effectively—whether on the future of digital trade or setting the rules of the road on artificial intelligence. The Trump administration’s failure to recognize the power of the country’s democratic values in an increasingly contested global war of ideas has ceded the ideological field to Beijing and other authoritarian governments. And Trump’s inexplicable allergy to multilateral problem-solving, including the withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accord, is allowing China to paint itself as the responsible global actor.

Competing effectively with China does not require the United States to launch a cold war or end all cooperation with Beijing. That would be unrealistic and counterproductive to long-term U.S. interests. The United States can walk and chew gum at the same time. In addition to getting its own house in order, the United States, with a more effective strategy, could also leverage China’s growing capacity take on the greatest problems the world faces. China should be carrying more of its own growing weight on pandemic disease, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, climate change, environmental cooperation, and other collective hurdles. By leaning back on areas of international cooperation, the Trump administration is currently ceding the field to China and letting it set the standards on issues ranging from human rights to global sustainability efforts.

The United States also needs a better defensive game. It must take steps to limit China’s ability to exploit the openness of its democratic market system. That means more dynamic screening requirements for Chinese foreign investments to minimize security risks; mandatory disclaimers on Chinese government propaganda so that people know what they are reading in their local papers; and mandatory transparency measures for Chinese funding to U.S. educational and civil society institutions so that China cannot obscure the scale of its investments. We also need an overhaul of the U.S. legal framework on foreign interference to keep pace with the growing challenge posed not just by China but by others as well. By focusing on transparency, the United States can more adequately defend itself while still adhering to its values on free speech and open markets.

The United States and China will inevitably compete to shape the 21st century. The United States must leverage its advantages in that competition—the American people, allies and partners, and values. This will require the country to think differently about the direct connections between its strength at home and its strength abroad.

Kelly Magsamen is the vice president for national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress and a former senior White House and Pentagon official. Twitter: @kellymagsamen

Melanie Hart is a senior fellow and China policy director at the Center for American Progress. Twitter: @Melanie_Hart

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