As recently as January, the administration appeared to be prioritizing good relations with Beijing in order to preserve the “phase one” trade deal. But now, given China’s gross mishandling of the pandemic, those arguing internally for more leniency have largely come around to a more hawkish stance, tracking Trump’s own turn away from his praise of China and his friendship with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Throughout the federal government, resistance is yielding to measures to confront China previously thought controversial.
A senior administration official told me China’s behavior throughout the crisis has compelled everyone in the administration to acknowledge the nature of the Chinese Communist Party-run system and the need to push back.
“The coronavirus crisis has highlighted all these truths and put light on all these dynamics that are impossible with a straight face now to deny,” the official said. “This is now the prevailing view . . . It is quite literally a consensus, and it wasn’t necessarily a consensus before.”
This new consensus was on display Wednesday, when Trump signed a major document on China policy and sent it to Congress. The report, “United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China,” lays out the administration’s China policy in more clarity and detail than ever before.
The paper argues that the past 40 years of U.S. strategy toward China were rooted in the now obviously false assumption that engagement and assistance would encourage China to open up economically and politically. China has abused engagement to shape our system to its benefit while expanding its power and influence in malign ways.
“To respond to Beijing’s challenge, the Administration has adopted a competitive approach to the PRC, based on a clear-eyed assessment of the CCP’s intentions and actions, a reappraisal of the United States’ many strategic advantages and shortfalls, and a tolerance of greater bilateral friction,” it states.
The report was already being drafted before the pandemic hit. Every relevant U.S. government agency endorsed it before its release. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo referred to it indirectly Wednesday.
“We greatly underestimated the degree to which Beijing is ideologically and politically hostile to free nations. The whole world is waking up to that fact,” he said. “The Chinese Communist Party’s response to the covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan has accelerated our more realistic understanding of communist China.”
Hawkish China statements from the National Security Council and State Department are routine. But a series of recent administration actions demonstrate that previously dovish parts of the U.S. government — such as the Treasury Department and the National Economic Council — have come around.
For months, Treasury had resisted calls to force the board overseeing federal workers’ pensions not to heavily increase its investments in Chinese companies. This month, Treasury withdrew its objection, and the White House ordered the board to reverse course. In a show of the new consensus, the order was signed by National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow and national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien.
On the tech front, economic-focused officials long resisted proposals to cut off Chinese tech giant Huawei from its international semiconductor supply as too disruptive, especially considering the trade deal. Last week, after the internal objections were removed, Trump went ahead with the restrictions.
It wasn’t so long ago that the idea of encouraging U.S. companies to leave China and return supply chains to the homeland was controversial. But now Kudlow is publicly proposing paying U.S. manufacturers to do just that. Decoupling is no longer a dirty word.
To be sure, Trump and his campaign are abusing the China issue to distract from his domestic failures. But that’s only possible because, as polls show, Americans in both parties are souring on China as they learn how Beijing’s coronavirus actions have worsened our suffering.
Those invested in a strategy focused on engagement are having a hard time letting it go. If you believe confronting China’s bad behavior is akin to recklessly steering the United States into a new Cold War, this new consensus is a bad thing.
But the pandemic convinced most Americans that something fundamental in our approach to China must change. And because we can’t change China (and shouldn’t try), what we can do is realize the nature of the competition we are in and then win it.