The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Trump administration’s China policies are ironically bolstering Beijing

President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping on Nov. 9, 2017, in Beijing. (Pool/Photographer: Pool/Getty Images)
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There’s a concept in Taoist philosophy called “wu wei,” which means accomplishing everything by doing nothing. When it comes to U.S.-China relations, President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo might want to peruse a few pages in the Tao Te Ching.

Because if the pair just stopped hyperventilating about China’s various crimes, they would accomplish, well, at least more than they are accomplishing today. China, in turn, would be in a far more difficult position than it is now.

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For more than 50 years, U.S. presidential administrations have been key to China’s rise. As I detailed in my history of U.S.-China relations, America’s open markets, open wallets and open minds facilitated China’s transformation into a nation with superpower ambitions. The Trump administration entered the White House committed to reversing the trend of a naive foreign policy that seemed destined to create a Frankenstein. Instead, almost every time Trump or Pompeo open their mouths on China, they ironically end up bolstering Beijing.

Take the origins of the novel coronavirus. Everybody knows the first cases originated in Wuhan. Does anyone seriously believe Beijing’s propaganda that it might have come to China in the bloodstream of a U.S. Army soldier? No. But Trump and Pompeo’s excessive use of the terms “Wuhan virus” or the “Chinese virus,” and their obsession with the possibility that it came from a Chinese lab, only make them look like back-of-the-bus bullies, small-minded and petty. Add to that the recent overblown pronouncement by Trump’s national security adviser Robert O’Brien comparing China’s handling of the crisis to the Soviet Union’s reaction to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and you get a sense of the China Derangement Syndrome that has infected the West Wing.

Why not instead follow Australia’s lead and call for an international investigation into the source of the disease and leave it at that? Let China continue its peevish propaganda campaign and hoist itself on its own petard.

The petulant U.S. move to stop payments to the World Health Organization is another American own goal. What purpose could it possibly serve? It’s pretty clear that the WHO was craven in the face of Chinese pressure in the early days of the pandemic in January. Investigators should get to the bottom of that issue. But the United States shouldn’t deny funding to the main international agency charged with fighting pandemics in the middle of a pandemic. All that does is make China’s contributions seem all the more generous and its cynical propaganda all the more sincere. And if the United States is serious about helping Taiwan participate in the World Health Assembly, the decision-making body of the WHO, it should keep current on its dues. In the United Nations, like most every place else, you have to pay to play.

Trump’s almost complete ignorance of the nature of the challenge the United States faces with China was summed up on May 14, when he announced that “you’d save $500 billion if you cut off the whole relationship” with China. In reality, of course, America wouldn’t save a dime; it would just have to spend that money somewhere else. Saying things such as this only weakens the case against Beijing.

Trump’s almost complete unwillingness to bring the United States’ allies in Western Europe and Japan in a united front to deal with China also strengthens China. The regime in Beijing thrives on divide and conquer. The more Trump alienates America’s friends, the stronger Beijing becomes.

A prime example is the trade war. Trump imposed tariffs on Chinese goods essentially because a years-long obsession with the trade imbalance has blinded him to the crux of the issue in economic relations between China and the developed world: market access. For five decades, Western markets have been open to what China is good at — manufactured products — while the Chinese market has been generally closed to what the West is good at: services and high tech.

Closing its markets to Western services, such as credit cards, and high tech, such as telecommunications equipment, means China has fostered its own champions. Thanks to Beijing’s protectionism, the global market share of the Chinese credit card firm, UnionPay, dwarfs Mastercard or Visa. And Huawei’s budget for research and development is more than its competitors Ericsson and Nokia combined.

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This is the case not because these are great companies, but because China has barred or limited foreign competition in the Chinese market while the West has allowed the Chinese counterparts unfettered access to opportunities overseas. The only way to confront this type of system is in concert with one’s friends. Unfortunately, the Trump administration has taken a unilateral approach.

Finally, there is the tragedy unfolding in Hong Kong. Trump’s lack of interest in the fight for rights in the Chinese territory has made it easier for Beijing to quash protests for more democracy. Last week, China announced plans to pass legislation that could be used to jail protesters and outlaw political parties. The announcement in Beijing prompted the foreign ministers of the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada to issue a joint statement condemning the move. To be sure, Pompeo made a statement criticizing China, but now is the time for the United States to be acting with its friends.

Yet again, Trump, violating the Tao, has chosen to fail at everything by going at it alone.

Read more:

Fareed Zakaria: Democrats are falling into a familiar trap on China

The Post’s View: China agreed to a global WHO review. Where was Trump?

Carl Bildt: The post-American world is now on full display

John Pomfret: Taiwan must join the WHO. Global health is too important to play politics.

Mitt Romney: America is awakening to China. This is a clarion call to seize the moment.

John Pomfret: Does the future still belong to the U.S. and China?