Chinese diplomacy has never been more aggressive. It has never had such sweeping objectives. It has never been served with such a sharp tongue. From threatening Australia with an economic boycott, to imprisoning Canadian citizens, to pushing the U.S. military out of the Philippines, President Xi Jinping is on the march.
“Wolf warrior diplomacy,” named for a blockbuster Chinese film in which a Chinese soldier goes on a patriotic international rampage, is the most outward sign of a new China — afraid of little and increasingly willing to test the power of its long accrued capital.
And there exists one singular accomplice of the new Chinese wolf warriors: President Donald J. Trump.
Trump’s China policy has been a gold-leaf wrapped gift to Beijing, creating space for Xi to consolidate his power domestically and expand his influence abroad. And now, as Trump seeks to deflect attention from his catastrophic failure to lead a national response to COVID-19, he is cozying up to the China hawks. Trump is hoping no one will notice that he has been the best U.S. president for Chinese interests in our nation’s short history.
Space to run circles around America
His disastrous China policy is, of course, centered on a bungling myopia. Trump cannot focus on any other China-related topic because of his naive pipe dream that he could persuade Xi to sign a comprehensive trade deal.
At the outset of talks, Trump strengthened Beijing’s hand by marching into a trade war alone, failing to rally a single European country to our side. This made it easy for Xi, who never had any intention of allowing Trump to force a meaningful change in China’s economic policy (especially the parts where Beijing subsidizes and controls industry, foreign products are excluded from China’s domestic market, and American intellectual property is stolen outright).
But Xi did manage to string Trump along while America lost 300,000 jobs and U.S. consumers paid millions in tariffs. More important, this focus gave China space to run circles around the United States in virtually every other forum outside the trade talks.
In Southeast Asia, China has never been stronger. Instead of building an alliance of friendly nations to counter China’s aspirations to control the waters of the region, Trump has pushed every single regional ally further away from us. After a 21-year military partnership with the Philippines, Chinese pressure and American neglect led to President Rodrigo Duterte kicking the United States out. Trump did effectively nothing to stop it, and a critical American foothold in the Pacific is about to vanish.
Japan and South Korea are more interested than ever in hedging their bets with China, as Trump threatens to pull troops out of both nations unless they quadruple their payments to the United States. And the wholesale abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, instead of trying to improve its terms, means that smaller nations see no meaningful economic future with the United States, leaving them little choice but to move closer to Beijing.
Inside and outside Asia, Trump simply watched and complained from the sidelines as China successfully built a 5G network that will allow Beijing to dominate international information networks for decades. Trump could have rallied our European partners to develop an alternative to China’s system — or at least begun the work of building alternatives to China’s next game-changing technological export, like artificial intelligence technology, advanced batteries or 6G. Instead, the Trump team’s only strategy was to bully as many countries as possible into forsaking Chinese 5G. Few listened.
China fills vacuums left by Trump
In international forums, the withdrawal of American influence and personnel created a vacuum that China gladly filled. The World Health Organization is the most relevant example of this phenomenon. Trump has thumbed his nose at America’s traditional leading role in fighting potential pandemics, consistently fighting for massive cuts to the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention and the State Department. When the American seat on the WHO governing board became available, Trump just didn’t fill it. The WHO saw the writing on the wall, and when Beijing began to offer support (at the same time Trump was pulling away), the group unsurprisingly accepted the offer of a closer relationship.
Similarly, when Trump announced the United States would withdraw all funding for the United Nations Population Fund, Xi committed to funding the establishment of 100 centers for maternal and child health in the developing world.
Finally, Trump’s antipathy for human rights and democracy leadership, and general slobbering over the world’s strongman dictators, have squelched the hopes of Chinese minority groups and dissidents. Trump was tepid at best in his support of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong and has turned a blind eye to the detention and persecution of Uighur Muslims. This has facilitated Xi’s ascendance to quasi-dictator-for-life status.
As the president desperately grasps for alternative targets to blame for COVID-19 in the United States, Trump’s political allies have given notice that China will increasingly be in their crosshairs. And of course, China does bear serious blame for its unconscionable obfuscation of the origins of the new coronavirus.
But if Trump’s case is that his reelection is required for America to effectively stand up to China, recent history makes clear the exact opposite is true. Four more years of Trump’s disastrous China policy will likely help vault Beijing into a position of global prominence from which it may never be dislodged. If Trump wants to make China policy a centerpiece of the coming campaign, his opponents should welcome it.
Chris Murphy is a Democratic senator from Connecticut. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisMurphyCT
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump let China run circles around America and now pretends to be tough