Trump’s New Realism in China

Critics aside, the administration does have a strategy, and it is based on reciprocity.

Cardboard figures of U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping wearing a face mask stand in front of a souvenir shop in Moscow on June 3.
Cardboard figures of U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping wearing a face mask stand in front of a souvenir shop in Moscow on June 3. Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images

Cardboard figures of U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping wearing a face mask stand in front of a souvenir shop in Moscow on June 3. Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images

This summer, as the international travel industry began its struggle to rebuild after collapsing during the coronavirus pandemic, Beijing maintained a near-blanket ban on U.S. airlines flying into China while allowing Chinese carriers to fly freely from American airports back home. By the beginning of June, with Chinese flights increasing on American soil, Washington announced that it would block Chinese passenger air flights into the United States in retaliation for the prohibition. Within one day of the announcement, Beijing indicated that it would relax its restriction. The episode was the latest evidence that the Trump administration does have a coherent China policy—and it is based on reciprocity.

Critics of the president describe his White House as vacillating wildly or barreling toward an outright break in ties with China. In his new book, for example, former National Security Advisor John Bolton, at the moment the most visible of the critics, claims that President Donald Trump’s China policy is “chaotic,” reflects “incoherence,” and is “not grounded in philosophy, grand strategy or policy” but rather in domestic political calculations. Yet the example of the airline ban, among others, offers a different interpretation. And although it is too soon to judge the ultimate effectiveness of a reciprocity strategy, it represents a potentially fundamental shift in Washington’s approach to Beijing, overturning four decades of diplomatic practice.

U.S. President Jimmy Carter (left), former President Richard Nixon (second left), and Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping (right) speak at a state dinner in honor of Deng’s visit to the United States in January 1979.

U.S. President Jimmy Carter (left), former President Richard Nixon (second left), and Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping (right) speak at a state dinner in honor of Deng’s visit to the United States in January 1979. CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Since the opening of relations with China in 1979, the U.S. government, as well as businesses, universities, cultural organizations, and the like, has pursued open-ended engagement. In the first 20 years of formal diplomatic ties, Washington was eager to explore how far relations with Beijing could develop, and China appeared to present little threat and vast opportunity. Focused on the global struggle with Moscow, Presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter, along with their advisors Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, welcomed China as a counter to the Soviet Union. For his part, China’s then-paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, saw economic ties and normalized political relations with Washington as key elements in his strategy to repair the destruction wrought by Mao Zedong’s rule. Even the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre did not significantly destabilize U.S.-Chinese relations, despite being ordered by Deng, who is still celebrated in the West as China’s most important reformer.

By the turn of the millennium, both Washington’s and Beijing’s bets had paid off. China had fully entered the international community, notably joining the World Trade Organization (WTO), while the Soviet Union had long since disappeared. China’s economic modernization was rapidly changing global trade and production patterns, placing it at the center of the world’s economy and bringing it unimagined wealth. One of many optimists about China, then-President Bill Clinton asserted in 2000 that getting China accepted into the WTO was the best opportunity since the 1970s to create “positive change” that would reshape the country’s politics and society, as well as its economy. Signs of growing civil society were celebrated in the West as evidence of neoliberal development. Yet a darker side of Chinese modernization soon began to appear.

At home, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its Leninist model proved far more enduring than Western observers assumed. Instead of a wealthier country naturally becoming more liberal, as modernization theory presumes, the CCP revitalized its authoritarian rule starting around 2009. Over the past decade, it has eroded civil society inside China and attempted to limit foreign, especially Western, influences. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s infamous Document No. 9 in 2013 made clear the party’s determination to resist any type of liberalization and that it saw itself in a long-term ideological struggle with the West. In foreign affairs, too, Beijing moved to assert its dominance in Asia by the 2010s and was beginning to challenge Washington for global preeminence. Using mercantilist trade practices, widespread espionage, cyberattacks, a relentless military expansion, and a global influence campaign, Beijing increasingly pressured nations throughout Asia and took advantage of open societies for unfair advantage.

Even prior to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, then, China had become one of the United States’ primary foreign-policy concerns. A rebalancing in U.S.-Chinese ties began before Trump took office. President Barack Obama’s much lauded “pivot” to the Indo-Pacific led, by the end of his term, to a significant deterioration in Sino-U.S. relations without much success in changing Xi’s policies. The Trump administration picked up the nascent shift in U.S. policy and accelerated it during its first three years, even as it pursued high-level diplomacy with Beijing. From trade to cyberattacks and the South China Sea, the Trump approach fused both liberal and conservative dissatisfaction over the direction of China’s growth into a broad-based challenge both to Beijing and to long-held assumptions about China at home.

Distinct from critics like Bolton, whose main charge against Trump’s China policy was an apparent haphazardness, others who favored continued engagement with China claimed that he was bent on a radical decoupling of economic and even political ties with Beijing. A review of his administration’s actions leads to a different conclusion: that it has adopted instead a fairly measured realist policy. The policy’s short-term implementation may appear uneven, as in cases like the on-again, off-again sanctions against the telecommunications company ZTE, but its overarching goals are consistent and, in the main, acted on. This approach was laid out explicitly in the 2017 National Security Strategy, helmed by then-National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, which called for a “principled realism” in responding to China’s competitive policies.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian takes a question at a media briefing in Beijing on April 8.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian takes a question at a media briefing in Beijing on April 8. GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images

At its core, the new approach reflects the gap between the reality of Xi’s China and the China that Western policymakers and business leaders assumed would develop through global integration. The National Security Strategy thus attempted to fit U.S. policy to the facts on the ground or, in Confucian terms, strove for a “rectification of names” (zhengming), a concept popularized by Xunzi, one of the three leading figures of the early Confucian school, after Mencius and Confucius himself. As an American policy approach, rectifying names is an attempt to accurately represent the state of affairs inside China and the relationship between China and the United States.

Beijing’s actions make it increasingly difficult to talk about cooperation after years of predatory Chinese cyberattacks on U.S. businesses and individuals or in the face of rampant theft of intellectual property, much of which comes from China and costs American businesses up to $600 billion a year, despite promises by Beijing to halt such practices. Broken promises not to militarize territory in the South China Sea have shifted the balance of power in one of the world’s most strategic waterways, and Beijing’s intimidation of Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, and other countries in the region has increased with its military power. Similarly, Beijing’s recent so-called “Wolf Warrior diplomacy,” personified by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian, abandons diplomatic niceties for rhetorically aggressive and threatening browbeating. That Beijing considers itself to be in a strategic competition with the United States is made clear in major speeches by Xi, in which competition with the Western capitalist system forms the core of the CCP’s worldview.

Despite Trump’s inclinations, his China team—including such disparate personalities as McMaster and Bolton, Assistant Secretary of State David Stilwell, Deputy National Security Advisor Matt Pottinger, and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer—faced powerful headwinds that aimed to put relations back on the path of the kind of engagement pursued by previous administrations. By the dawn of 2020, signs of an emerging modus vivendi, such as the winter agreement on a “phase one” trade deal, seemed to presage a return to the pre-Trump status quo, prioritizing stability in the bilateral relationship over radical reform.

But any return to the old policy was swept away by the coronavirus pandemic. As the pandemic swept from China across the globe, shuttering economies and locking down societies, charges and countercharges traded between Washington and Beijing over responsibility for the COVID-19 catastrophe led to a precipitous downward spiral in relations, revealing the dearth of trust and cooperative relations between the two nations. More significantly, the chilling of relations seems to have spurred the administration to fully embrace a policy of reciprocity as a more viable means to shape Beijing’s actions.

A pedestrian walks under an advertisement for the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei’s latest phone in Tokyo on June 26. The Trump administration has taken actions to limit Chinese companies’ access to American markets or technology, most notably by banning Huawei from the American 5G market.

A pedestrian walks under an advertisement for the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei’s latest phone in Tokyo on June 26. The Trump administration has taken actions to limit Chinese companies’ access to American markets or technology, most notably by banning Huawei from the American 5G market. KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP via Getty Images

The reciprocity strategy was articulated in a May White House report, “United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China.” Following the concept of principled realism in the National Security Strategy, the new approach states that “the United States sees no value in engaging with Beijing for symbolism and pageantry; we instead demand tangible results and constructive outcomes. We acknowledge and respond in kind to Beijing’s transactional approach with timely incentives and costs, or credible threats thereof.”

If it is indeed guided by this concept of reciprocal treatment, as openly proclaimed by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, U.S. policy would adopt a measured balance toward Beijing’s actions, far from the shoot-from-the-hip belligerence portrayed by some of its critics. The goal is not conflict but rather to create a level playing field. To that end, there are two kinds of reciprocity that the administration is pursuing: structural and issue-specific.

The Trump administration’s first attempts at reciprocal policies were focused on correcting structural inequalities in the Sino-American relationship. The primary target was unbalanced economic ties. Despite decades of claims by U.S. policymakers that a China economically integrated into the global economy would gradually liberalize its trade approach, Beijing’s mercantilist policy was instead strengthened and its theft of intellectual property largely given a free pass. At the same time, the so-called “China shock” of the country’s admission into the WTO led to a dramatic decline for manufacturing and other economic activity in the American heartland.

Pursuing what previous presidents have called “fair trade,” the Trump administration challenged long-standing tenets of the free trade school. As in the 1980s negotiations with Japan, the primary approach was to levy various tariffs, phased in over a period of months on more than $500 billion worth of Chinese exports to the United States, as a means to get expanded market access inside China and increased purchases of American goods. The “phase one” trade deal agreed to before the pandemic is just the first step in what may be a constant recalibration of trade relations. Further market-limiting policies may be adopted to ensure either full Chinese compliance with WTO standards or subsequent trade deals, as well as in response to future Chinese actions that discriminate against U.S. businesses operating in China. Even staunchly pro-engagement business groups, such as the American Chamber of Commerce in China, are now advocating government actions to ensure what AmCham China calls “competitive neutrality.”

The administration has also taken actions taken to limit Chinese companies’ access to American markets or technology. Most notably, it has blocked Huawei from being able to purchase U.S. semiconductor chips and banned it from the American 5G market while preventing both Huawei and ZTE from selling equipment to U.S. government purchasers. These policies have been defended primarily on national security grounds, to prevent the future theft of digital data, or adopted as a means of preventing Huawei in particular from becoming the world’s dominant telecommunications provider.

However, in light of Beijing’s unwillingness to allow major American technology companies such as Amazon, Facebook, and Google from operating freely in China, as well as its long-running attempts to steal U.S. technology, the Trump administration’s actions can also be seen as attempting to impose costs on China for unfair treatment of U.S. companies. Although there has been little explicit claim from Washington that it seeks to level the technological playing field inside China, American policymakers have been frustrated by Chinese restrictions placed on U.S. companies and onerous requirements, such as those mandating that such firms work with Chinese partners (often with government ties).

The second set of reciprocal actions is related to specific issues that Washington seeks to resolve, as the 5G confrontation reveals. Evidence for the administration’s issue-specific reciprocal approach has been building this year, in addition to the administration’s threat to block Chinese airline flights into the United States. Driven by Pottinger and Stilwell, in March Washington limited the number of Chinese journalists allowed to operate in the United States for state-run media outlets to 100, in response to expulsions of U.S. reporters and increasing restrictions in China. The government also shortened work visas for Chinese journalists, reflecting visa restrictions on foreign journalists imposed by Beijing. In May, the administration announced plans to cancel educational visas for Chinese graduate students linked to People’s Liberation Army schools and institutes, after years of widespread concerns, reports, and arrests for theft of intellectual property and material from U.S. university research labs.

U.S. President Donald Trump takes part in a welcoming ceremony with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Nov. 9.

U.S. President Donald Trump takes part in a welcoming ceremony with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Nov. 9. Thomas Peter-Pool/Getty Images

The reciprocal approach is new enough that its effectiveness cannot yet be fully assessed. It is enough of a departure from the past four decades of U.S. policy toward China, however, that many voices see it as needlessly provocative. Yet, as seen in the airlines case, a policy of reciprocity does not ensure a cycle of worsening relations. It may instead offer a more effective means of correcting inequities in a relationship.

Reciprocity is a prudent attempt to make policy fit real conditions, and its built-in drive toward balance prevents it from swinging too far in the direction of either accommodation or antagonism. The goal is to encourage further engagement—but only if both sides clearly benefit equally from the interaction. In its way, reciprocity lets Beijing determine the atmosphere of the relationship through its actions, with Washington responding so as to ensure that American interests are not harmed. Reciprocity is also a brake on unrealistic U.S. expectations, and it can protect against the disappointment that can further undermine relations when Chinese promises are not kept or American hopes fall short.

A reciprocity policy does not come without significant challenges, however. It will call into question liberal values deeper than just free trade, such as the open society that Westerners take for granted. Americans have long believed that allowing foreigners full access to this society would produce four main outcomes: helping to reduce political tensions, improving mutual understanding, promoting scientific and other types of knowledge, and encouraging liberal development abroad. American policymakers from both parties long claimed that China would follow suit, if only engagement were steadily pursued. Since the opening of relations with China in 1979, Chinese visitors, temporary residents, and students have had no restrictions placed on them in the United States and have had as much freedom here as American citizens, while the U.S. government developed a robust array of official exchanges with Beijing.

In contrast, Americans have been denied free access throughout China or restricted in the types of business, educational, and cultural exchanges they can have. As one example, while there were at one point over 600 Beijing-funded Confucius Institutes and “Confucius classrooms” in the United States, most on university campuses and secondary schools, only 20 counterpart American centers at Chinese universities existed in the 2010s, and these closed after Chinese officials refused American diplomats access to them or pressured universities to cease their operations. Similarly, NGOs and other forms of Western-inspired civil society have been restricted, if not suppressed, under Xi’s rule.

After four decades of trying, it is time to admit that access to the United States for the millions of Chinese who have lived, studied, and worked there—while surely beneficial for them—has completely failed to help liberalize the CCP, nor has it done much to moderate the Chinese policies that have led to increased tensions. If anything, it has forced Chinese leaders to further dissolve the civil society that was emerging in the 1980s and 1990s, and it has led Beijing to adopt a confrontational attitude toward the United States and other liberal nations.

Similarly, whether Washington’s China policy from the 1970s through the 1990s created working-level diplomatic and economic opportunities, thereby making America safer and wealthier, it long ago stopped benefiting the country’s economic or political security. Such a diagnosis does not mandate shutting off all relations but rather a rethink of how to ensure a more realistic approach. Whether Trump or someone else, some type of recalibration in U.S.-Chinese relations seemed inevitable by the middle of Obama’s term.

After nearly a half-century of engagement, there is a widespread recognition that the best of Washington’s intentions did not produce either the bilateral relationship or the China for which generations of U.S. leaders hoped. The CCP chose a path that it believed best fit its interests, one in congruence with much of China’s authoritarian, bureaucratic history and not the brief moment of democracy glimpsed during the 1919 May 4 Movement. Washington’s new realism heralds a different approach toward Beijing. In the light of decades of experience, the Trump administration is betting that a policy of reciprocity may turn out to be the most realistic means for rebalancing ties and maintaining stable relations between the world’s two most powerful nations.

Michael Auslin is the Payson J. Treat distinguished research fellow in contemporary Asia at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and the author of Asia’s New Geopolitics. He co-hosts The Pacific Century podcast at Hoover.