Just take the past week. On March 16, President Trump signed the Taiwan Travel Act, which is designed to change a U.S. policy that for years has blocked senior officials from Taiwan and the United States from visiting each other’s capitals. The bill, which states that it should be U.S. policy to allow high-ranking Americans to visit Taipei and to welcome equally high-ranking Taiwanese to Washington, was unusual in another sense. It passed both houses of Congress unanimously, despite a vigorous campaign by Chinese Ambassador Cui Tiankai who warned darkly of “severe consequences” if it became law. China’s Communist government claims Taiwan, although it has never ruled the island.
Just as Trump was signing the measure, Alex Wong, a deputy assistant secretary of state, was coincidentally heading to Taiwan. While American officials at Wong’s level have traveled to the island before, the U.S. government gave his trip extra prominence. Wong shared a podium with Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen and in a speech to the American Chamber of Commerce announced that Washington’s commitment to protecting Taiwan’s capacity to defend its democracy “has never been stronger.” Wong also poked at China’s president Xi Jinping, who recently tightened his grip on power by doing away with term limits for China’s president. “Dynamic, broad-based and sustainable growth can never hinge,” Wong said, “on the whim of a dictator.”
On Thursday, Trump announced that the United States will levy tariffs on some $60 billion worth of imports from China as part of an effort to fight Beijing’s industrial policy. China has used forced technological transfer, investment restrictions and espionage to strengthen its tech sector to the detriment of competitors in the United States.
Earlier this month, Trump slapped tariffs on steel and aluminum imports into the United States. The administration then agreed to exempt Canada, Mexico, the European Union, South Korea and Brazil from the levies, demonstrating that the real focus of Trump’s ire was China’s overproduction of steel and aluminum, which has hurt the industry worldwide. At the same time, the Trump administration limited the ability of Chinese firms to invest in the United States, blocking Chinese attempts to buy American chipmakers and financial firms. And on March 12, China was in Trump’s sights when he blocked Broadcom’s $117 billion bid for the chipmaker Qualcomm, even though Broadcom is not Chinese-owned. American officials had worried that if the deal went through, Broadcom would slow down Qualcomm’s efforts to compete with Chinese firms, such as Huawei Technologies, in developing 5G, a new mobile data standard that could replace the 4G LTE that’s common on mobile devices today.
Americans have been warning China that a backlash was coming. Longtime experts on China, led by Susan Shirk, chair of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California at San Diego, and Orville Schell of the Asia Society, argued in a report that China was benefiting far more from its relationship with the United States than vice versa. Shirk, Schell and dozens of other American China experts launched a full-court press with Chinese friends and interlocutors, trying to alert them that China was pushing America too far.
They noted that, in negotiations with then-President Barack Obama, China’s president Xi had agreed not to turn a series of manmade islands that China had created in the South China Sea into military installations. But then China did just that.
When it came to trade, they pointed out that for decades, China had been forcing American companies to hand over technology to China in exchange for access to the Chinese market. Massive Chinese espionage directly benefited the development of China’s automotive, aircraft, information technology and defense industries. For decades, Shirk noted in an interview, the American business community served as the ballast in the U.S. relationship with China. But after years of such treatment in China, she said, many American firms are “frustrated and disaffected.”
On North Korea, successive U.S. administrations looked the other way as Chinese companies bolstered North Korea’s economy and at least indirectly facilitated Pyongyang’s program to develop nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them. This was all in the hopes that Beijing would ultimately come to its senses and help the United States persuade North Korea to end these programs. But that has not happened. North Korea appears to be on the brink of becoming a nuclear state.
On Taiwan, America’s China experts counseled Beijing that its unrelenting pressure on the government of Tsai Ing-wen, who was elected president in 2016, was counterproductive in both America and Taiwan. Why, they asked, did China think it necessary to block Taiwan from attending the annual World Health Assembly in Geneva? Or to see to it that Taiwan did not have a seat on Interpol, the international police agency? Why did it feel the need to continue to deploy hundreds of missiles opposite Taiwan while insisting that the United States end its arm sales to Taipei?
Some Chinese analysts with whom I have spoken privately say China no longer needs the United States as much as it used to. Exports to the United States now constitute about 3.6 percent of China’s gross domestic product as China has become less reliant on exports to guarantee its growth. Others such as Shi Yinhong, a professor of international affairs at Renmin University, have said that China’s leaders had grown so accustomed over the years to empty American threats that now that the tariffs and other changes have been announced they don’t quite know how to react.
At the Center for Strategic and International Studies, James Lewis noted that it’s easy to take issue with Trump’s style in confronting China. Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs, for example, started out by alienating America’s allies — whose support will be needed in any campaign to curb mercantilist policies from Beijing. But he added, “China will not change its behavior absent external pressure. … After 30 years, those chickens have come home to roost.”