Bringing balance to America’s relationship with the People’s Republic of China is the geopolitical challenge of this century. That the United States is now in a position to deliver on the challenge is impressive. The opportunity shouldn’t be wasted by focusing on a handful of individual trade matters that do little to address structural imbalances. An improved U.S. trade surplus in soybeans would not be enough.
For nearly two decades, the communist Chinese government fooled the world into believing it would eventually embrace international norms. By welcoming China into the World Trade Organization in 2001, the United States and other nations hoped it would truly open its economy and markets to foreign companies and, someday, even allow for political liberalization.
The hopes were mistaken.
As China rises, seeking to become the dominant global superpower, it is violating the international rules of the past century while moving to write new rules for the new century in its mercantilist and authoritarian image.
China has maintained its one-party political system’s authoritarian character, including an utter disregard for human rights and the impartial rule of law. An increasingly aggressive Beijing poses a direct threat to U.S. national interests and to the nation’s most deeply held values.
Until recently, few thought the United States was willing — or able — to confront China. But in his recent State of the Union address, Trump put the world on notice that America is “now making it clear to China that after years of targeting our industries, and stealing our intellectual property, the theft of American jobs and wealth has come to an end.”
U.S. tariffs and other measures are starting to exert significant pressure on China’s economy and on its government decision-makers. Foreign investors have begun to pull back from China. The threat of more crippling U.S. tariffs creates vulnerability and uncertainty in China. America’s restored confidence and assertiveness under the Trump administration may be leading Chinese elites to question their assumptions about their policies toward the United States.
Chinese President Xi Jinping clearly would like to de-escalate the trade conflict. But efforts such as fast-tracking the passage of a foreign investment law next month, supposedly to address international alarm about China’s forced technology transfers and intellectual-property theft, are just shiny objects intended for the financial markets. U.S. trade negotiators must stay focused on the fundamental issues of economic theft and competition.
Haggling over soybeans, footwear or other low-value goods is not enough when China is engaged in a national effort to displace the United States and dominate 5G technologies, quantum computing, artificial intelligence, advanced pharmaceuticals and high-value manufacturing.
Coming away with a strong deal is all the more important because Beijing is pursuing foreign policies that actively undermine American and allied interests. China has thrown financial lifelines to Nicolás Maduro and his criminal cronies in Venezuela. It is also aggressively militarizing the South China Sea, allowing the North Korean regime to evade sanctions and turning a blind eye to destabilizing arms sales by Chinese entities in the Middle East.
Moreover, China still has not followed through on Xi’s commitment to halt the illegal flow of the addictive opioid fentanyl from China to the United States. China is still unjustly detaining U.S. and Canadian citizens, and accelerating its systematic and egregious human rights abuses, including the internment of more than 1 million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang province, and its broader attack on religious adherents, including Christians and Tibetan Buddhists.
In an ideal world, the Trump administration might even push for a deal that went beyond trade issues and also required China to reconsider these threatening policies.
Trump is doing what few thought possible: creating powerful leverage that could be used to change the behavior of China’s government and potentially bring more balance and reciprocity to the entire relationship. If American negotiators waste their leverage by prematurely agreeing to a bad deal, China will be emboldened to pursue policies that run directly counter to America’s national interest, and the United States will risk losing this century’s most important strategic, economic and geopolitical competition.
The stakes couldn’t be higher — for the American people, for the 1.4 billion Chinese living under an authoritarian regime and for the stability of the world.