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Trump Is Dangerously Predictable With China
Whether he is cozying up to China or scapegoating it, Trump has consistently placed his personal political interests over those of the United States.
As a candidate in 2016, U.S. President Donald Trump offered a glimpse of his future foreign policy. Even more than putting “America first,” his goal was for the United States to become unpredictable in world affairs. “We must as a nation be more unpredictable,” Trump told his campaign audience. “We are totally predictable. … We have to be unpredictable. And we have to be unpredictable starting now.”
In many ways, Trump seems to have delivered on this promise, however ill-advised it was in the first place. He has threatened to annihilate at least two countries, impetuously fired and hired senior officials, tweeted apparently classified imagery, and abruptly announced—and then reversed—troop movements. These and many other steps might have startled even Richard Nixon, the president said to have pioneered the so-called madman theory in U.S. foreign policy.
At first glance, U.S. China policy under Trump fits this mold. It has been variously described as “topsy-turvy,” “impulsive,” and “erratic.” After all, Trump during his time in office has engaged in a head-spinning routine of confrontation and concession. Just as he engaged in an aggressive trade war with Beijing, for example, he spoke of deep admiration of and friendship with Chinese President Xi Jinping. This year alone has been a rollercoaster in relations. In January, Trump spoke of his “love” for Xi—only to subsequently fuel attacks on China by labeling the novel coronavirus the “Chinese virus” and calling for China to pay reparations for the pandemic.
However erratic Trump’s positions on China appear at the surface, an honest examination of his engagement with Beijing reveals not unpredictability but a dangerous steadfastness. Trump has consistently placed his personal political interests over the national interest of the United States—even when the stakes couldn’t be higher.
Take Trump’s approach to Xi in early 2020, as the coronavirus was ravaging the central Chinese city of Wuhan and starting to spread beyond the country’s borders. During all that time, Trump was consistently fawning over the Chinese leader. By one count, Trump publicly praised Xi—including his supposed transparency—15 times between January and March, even as the U.S. intelligence community and his own White House advisors were sounding dire warnings about the impending pandemic and China’s handling of it.
It has since become clear that Trump’s words were less about Xi’s coronavirus response—which Trump started to criticize only later—than about his interest in avoiding any risk to the so-called phase-one trade deal with China, which was signed on Jan. 15 and implemented in mid-February. Trump made little attempt to disguise where he put his priorities. In late January, for example, when asked about concerns with China’s transparency regarding the rapidly spreading virus, Trump said he trusted Xi, touted their relationship, and immediately pivoted to describing “probably the biggest deal ever made.” The following month, after the outlines of China’s cover-up had emerged, Trump betrayed a similar state of mind when asked about Beijing’s response: “We really don’t know. … [But] we’re working together on a lot of different things, including trade. … They’ll be spending $250 billion. … We have a great trade deal.”
Nor has Trump been shy about brandishing the trade deal as a pillar of his reelection campaign. Just before its signing, Trump crowed about the deal—describing it as a “big, beautiful monster”—at a campaign rally in the swing state of Ohio. During the signing ceremony itself, he declared: “It just doesn’t get any bigger than this.” Trump’s campaign, moreover, was planning a series of television ads touting the deal, whose signing and implementation spanned the exact period when America’s coronavirus trajectory was taking shape. It was precisely during this period when the dialogue between Washington and Beijing could have benefited from less fawning and more calls for transparency and international cooperation. But for Trump himself, the trade deal and its political implications didn’t “get any bigger,” and not even public health concerns could push him to jeopardize his rapport with Xi to secure it.
Other developments in Trump’s relations with Beijing that seem erratic on the surface display the same predictable, one-track mindset. This includes Trump’s protection of the Chinese telecommunications firm ZTE against his own officials in the Department of Commerce. In March 2017, ZTE pleaded guilty in the United States to illegally exporting American technology to Iran and North Korea. A year later, when the firm violated the settlement agreement with the U.S. court, the Department of Commerce banned American companies from providing ZTE with technology for seven years. The ruling underscored the national security implications of ZTE’s original offenses, its disregard for the settlement agreement, and the company’s efforts to cover up that disregard.
Trump upended this course of action in May 2018, when he abruptly tweeted about how he was working with Xi to get ZTE “back into business,” citing “[t]oo many jobs in China lost” and directing the Commerce Department to “get it done.” The U.S. president’s focus on unemployed Chinese—after railing against Beijing’s unfair economic practices for years—raised eyebrows and sowed confusion even within his own administration.
But in this case, too, Trump’s actions were entirely logical when viewed through the lens of his own political interests. News reports subsequently revealed that the Chinese had taken a hard line on the ZTE issue in the ongoing trade talks, demanding that U.S. penalties be relaxed. Just as he did earlier this year, Trump went to extremes to protect his politically valuable deal. In the ZTE case, he even dismissed his own administration’s national security concerns and rightfully imposed penalties.
Once again, we have seen that this is a president who does not hesitate to place his own interests ahead of the national interest—in public health or national security—when they diverge. Let’s not forget another prominent example: his willingness to mortgage U.S. national security in return for manufactured dirt on his domestic political opponent, a lurid tale exposed on national television over the course of weeks. We haven’t yet had televised hearings, but in the case of China, Trump’s motivations have been on display more clearly than ever before, as much of the nation watched him obsequiously praise Beijing rather than prioritize the public health of the American people. In another turn that seems erratic only on the surface, Trump’s new efforts to deflect blame for the coronavirus pandemic onto Beijing, the World Health Organization, and other scapegoats suggests he very well recognizes the political peril he now faces.
For all this, Trump has so far escaped accountability. That will have to change—otherwise, he is certain to place his own political interests ahead of those of the United States and its people.