Trump spins his China policy for re-election

Author: Daniel Sneider, Stanford University

Just as the crisis over the murder of George Floyd was erupting, US President Donald Trump, flanked by his senior foreign and national security and trade officialdom, strode out to the Rose Garden to deliver a statement on China.

The announcement reflected the reality that Trump now sees a full-scale rhetorical attack on China as central to regaining his political legitimacy in the face of widespread perception that he bungled the response to COVID-19. 

The President’s own transactional approach to China is being increasingly supplanted by a more ideological confrontation favoured by more hard-line elements within his own administration.

Responding to Chinese moves to impose a national security law on Hong Kong that would severely limit its autonomy and status as a ‘free society’, Trump announced a vague intention to revoke US special treatment of Hong Kong as a distinct entity from mainland China.

The incongruity of Trump’s embrace of the cause of Hong Kong protestors while orchestrating a crackdown on Americans demonstrating in the streets of various US states has been eagerly exploited by the Chinese government.

Unfortunately, this is not the only manifestation of the incoherence of the Trump administration’s China policy. There is not one China policy but several simultaneous approaches being carried out.

The President’s approach to China is dictated, as is everything he does, by the perceived short-term benefit to his re-election. It can shift with the winds of his political fortunes.

Within his administration, however, there sits a group of hardcore ideologues, many of whom see China as a totalitarian communist state bent on global domination such that there is no real prospect of engagement between the two states.

There are also the national security and trade professionals who reflect the broader policy consensus that the United States has entered an era of strategic rivalry with China, ranging from economic and technological competition to military standoffs in the South China Sea.

Recent documents such as the Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China alongside the State Department’s National Security Export Controls on Huawei undergird this consensus.

Both papers offer toughly worded but nuanced policies that avoid loose talk of economic decoupling and endorse cooperation with allies to maintain the liberal world order.

Trump’s electoral obsessions and the agenda of China hardliners in the US have converged due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The trade pact with China signed on 15 January was central to Trump’s re-election campaign, framed by a booming economy and his claim to have finally put ‘America First’.

Trump praised China and Chinese President Xi Jinping for their response to and transparency in dealing with the virus.

All that crumbled by mid-March with the explosion of viral infections and COVID-19 induced economic collapse. The Trump campaign shifted gears to make China a central issue by labelling former US vice president Joe Biden and Democratic frontrunner ‘Beijing Biden’.

Senior director for Asian affairs in the Obama administration Jeffrey Bader claims Trump ‘had to find a new villain’ as part of a disinformation campaign around China’s handling of COVID-19, ostensibly for electoral purposes.

The US intelligence community was ordered to scour their files in search of anything which would lend credence to the idea that China was responsible for the pandemic.

Well placed intelligence officials claim that this practice risks certain types of intelligence being overstated to help the argument being made the Trump administration.

Comparisons have been made with the pressure brought to bear on the CIA by former US vice president Dick Cheney to provide evidence of a link between the Iraqi government, militant organisation Al Qaida and the September 11 attacks to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Trump and his senior officials, led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, escalated from earlier suggestions that the virus had accidentally leaked from a lab in Wuhan to the charge that China deliberately ‘seeded’ the world with the virus by sending its infected citizens abroad.

In his Rose Garden statement the President claimed China had ‘allowed [its citizens] to freely travel throughout the world, including Europe and the United States’.

This theory was first laid out in a commentary by Lewis Libby, former senior aide to Dick Cheney and now Senior Vice President at the Hudson Institute, a conservative thinktank that has become the most prominent source of the administration’s China policy. 

Libby argued that Xi and the Chinese Communist Party leadership were under increasing threat from the Hong Kong protests, the re-election of the nationalist Taiwanese government, a slowing Chinese economy in the face of US trade policy and COVID-19.

To head this off, Libby claims, Xi opted to spread the virus globally, weakening Europe and the United States while China claimed credit for shutting it down.

The former aide is no stranger to the construction of foreign policy narratives. He was Cheney’s point man in pressuring the CIA to support the false claims that Iraq was building weapons of mass destruction and was linked to the 9/11 attacks.

Libby is part of a group of neo-conservative intellectuals at the Hudson Institute, among them the Director of Chinese Strategy Michael Pillsbury, many of whom have pushed the idea of zero-sum competition with China.

Hudson is the favoured location for major addresses by Vice President Mike Pence and State Secretary Mike Pompeo for laying out the underlying themes of the Trump administration’s approach to China.

In the view of former security officials such as Jeffrey Bader, the pandemic offered a remarkable opportunity for this group to push a more aggressive posture toward China, exemplified by the renewed advocacy of economic decoupling and a more active military posture in the region.

Some prominent Republican politicians who are already positioning to succeed Trump, such as Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton and Florida Senator Mario Rubio, have embraced the anti-China cause. Trump, as has been evident, can shift with the winds but for now has joined hands with the hawks. Whatever happens in November, the hardliners hope to cement this policy stance for the long term.

Daniel Sneider is a Lecturer of International Policy and East Asian Studies at Stanford University.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on the novel coronavirus crisis and its impact.

COURTESY: EAST ASIA FORUM https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2020/06/15/trump-spins-his-china-policy-for-re-election/#more-263124


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