And trade is only just part of it. On Tuesday the Trump administration also notified Congress of a $330 million arms sales package for Taiwan, which China claims is its territory. Tensions between China and the United States now run the gamut from a standoff on the South China Sea, worries over North Korea, espionage in cyberspace, and an ideological competition across the globe — and they are only going to increase.
Still, as relations deteriorate, it’s important to understand that for the most part China’s ruling Communist Party has brought this on itself. What’s also clear is that the party’s bureaucracy has yet to comprehend the full dimension of the tidal shift in the U.S. government’s views of China. The political necessity of sucking up to President Xi Jinping has so distorted China’s information feedback loop that no one within the bureaucracy seems willing to inform the red emperor that China’s foreign policy has failed.
Much of the failure can be blamed on a triumphalist sense within the Chinese Communist Party that its system of resilient authoritarianism is superior to liberal democracy. As far back as a decade ago, the party began shedding the old strategy of its dead leader, Deng Xiaoping, that mandated that China should “bide its time.” An aggressive China emerged under party leader Hu Jintao and has only accelerated since Xi took power in 2012.
Take China’s relations with Japan. In 2009, the Democratic Party of Japan became the first real opposition party to control Japan’s government since World War II. The party’s leader, Yukio Hatoyama, ran on a platform that promised equidistance between Washington and Beijing. For China, which had long sought to weaken the U.S.-Japanese alliance, this was a golden opportunity.
But instead of currying favor with the new government in Tokyo, Beijing ramped up its demand that the Senkaku Islands, a collection of uninhabited rocks, be handed over to China. Beijing flooded the waters around the Senkakus with Chinese fishing boats, leading to a full-blown diplomatic spat in the summer of 2010. The weakness of the Democratic Party of Japan’s response to this pressure played a role in the return to power in 2012 of the far more conservative Liberal Democratic Party. Relations with Japan have been testy ever since.
China’s policies on the Korean peninsula also reveal missed opportunities that have hurt Beijing. For years, American officials have sought Chinese help to pressure North Korea as the regime became a nuclear power. American officials tried to engage their Chinese counterparts in a discussion of the future of the peninsula, including the future of the some 30,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, which China has long wanted withdrawn.
China has been reluctant to aid the United States in North Korea, partly because hardwired in the DNA of many Chinese officials is a belief that a problem for the United States constitutes an advantage for China. Instead of carrying out increasingly strict U.N. sanctions on North Korea, Beijing winked as its companies did business with the Kim regime and facilitated its weapons programs. And when North Korea conducted outrageous attacks on the South, such as the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel in March 2010, China was silent, sending North Korea a clear signal that no matter what, Beijing had its back.
Chinese officials argued that if China cut off oil and energy supplies to North Korea, the regime might collapse, resulting in the unification of the Korean peninsula under a pro-Western government in Seoul. But China’s deep-seated opposition to a united Korea shows the failure of imagination at the core of the Chinese leadership. If Korea unites with China’s help, it would amount to the biggest boost to China’s lagging soft power in this century. Unification of the peninsula could set the scene for even greater Chinese influence in northeast Asia, including the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Korea. But instead of squeezing the North, China squeezed the South, slapping a de facto trade embargo on South Korea in 2016 after Seoul, fearing North Korean rockets, moved to deploy a U.S. missile defense system known as THAAD. In public opinion polls, South Koreans now rate China lower than their old colonial master, Japan.
China’s shenanigans in the South China Sea have caused it trouble throughout the region and with the United States. China’s claim to a 1.3-million-square-mile waterway is ludicrous on the face of it. It’s as if the United States claimed the Caribbean. It violates the U.N. Law of the Sea and in 2016 an international tribunal at The Hague invalidated China’s claims to the sea as well as China’s attempts to turn rocks in the South China Sea into islands for military use. But China ignored the ruling and broke a promise made in September 2015 by Xi to President Barack Obama not to deploy military forces on those prefabricated islands.
Some argue that China, through its aggressive behavior, has already “won” the South China Sea. But what actually has it achieved other than turning seven rocks into permanent military fixtures that could be incinerated at the slightest hint of a conflict with the United States? Was this worth alienating much of Southeast Asia?
China’s Belt and Road Initiative to build infrastructure across the world is also finding resistance as countries fear sliding into debt traps and Chinese meddling. In Europe, Trump’s election was seen as a golden opportunity for China to drive a wedge between members of the Atlantic alliance. But the party has bungled that, too, by seeking to leverage the poorer countries in Europe to attain benefits in Brussels. The recent diplomatic flap in Sweden over the perfectly professional way Swedish police handled a disruptive Chinese tourist has not won Beijing any points.
Finally, in the United States, China used to have deep connections with American businesses, which constituted the biggest cheerleader for the relationship following the 1989 crackdown on a student-led movement as China’s economy reformed and, with America’s assistance, China acceded to the World Trade Organization. But years of fruitless negotiations over creating a level playing field for American companies in China, ending China’s rampant theft of U.S. commercial secrets and curtailing forced technological transfers have soured many American firms on the myth of the Chinese market. Now China is facing a Great Wall of tariffs against its products coming into the United States.
To be sure, it’s easy to criticize Trump’s tougher policy on China as scattershot or even dangerous. But those who yearn to “put the relationship back on track” don’t really offer viable alternatives to the challenges China presents. One solution is to further accommodate China, but that seems destined to end up rewarding bad behavior. Others have called for a return to the negotiating table, arguing that this time, really, things are going to be different. Perhaps Trump is right, and it’s time to try something new.