On Wednesday, Trump told Reuters that “China will do anything they can to have me lose this race.” He made the same claim in the White House East Room on Thursday. He insists that in a dangerous world, he’s all that stands between China and geopolitical dominance — and that China’s leadership is shaking at the prospect of having to deal with him for four more years.
He’s got it backward. Trump is China’s dream candidate, and its government would be more than happy to deal with him for four more years. In his first term, the president hasn’t brought China to its knees: He’s made it stronger.
Behind the propaganda vaunting “win-win” cooperation and a “community of common destiny,” the Communist Party of China and Chinese President Xi Jinping have long aspired to catch up with and then surpass the United States technologically, economically and militarily. Although China has the world’s No. 2 economy, it has yet to match American strength, innovation, values and alliances. But amid the chaos that Trump has sown, a window has opened for China to undercut those advantages, and to hold out its dictatorship as a more stable and attractive alternative to our sometimes-messy democracy.
The Trump administration has failed to meet the technological challenge posed by China. According to a 2019 Council on Foreign Relations report on innovation and national security, “Despite bipartisan support for broad technology competition with Beijing, the White House has failed to work with Congress to increase federal support for basic R&D and has adopted an incremental and limited approach to supporting the development of frontier technologies.” Meanwhile, Trump’s backward immigration policies have threatened our ability to compete for global talent when we need it most. This, at precisely the moment China has surged investment in these areas. According to a Brookings Institution analysis, China has more than quadrupled the number of undergraduate science and engineering degrees granted by its universities, from 360,000 in 2000 to 1.7 million in 2015. And Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology finds that the Chinese government is probably investing at least as much in artificial intelligence as the United States in a drive to become “the world’s primary AI innovation center” by 2030.
The president’s vaunted “phase one” trade agreement, on the heels of a trade war that cost tens of billions of dollars and pushed many American farmers into bankruptcy, is unlikely to even recoup its own costs, and has made no real progress on the original casus belli: the theft of intellectual property and unfair subsidies. Trump took the heat off while China continues to engage in intellectual property theft and doubles down on distortionary subsidies in strategically critical technologies, like advanced semiconductors.
Trump has also written China a blank check on human rights abuse. As the world learns more about what is happening in Xinjiang — possibly the largest internment of a religious or ethnic group since World War II — Trump has been silent. When Jewher Ilham, a Uighur activist, was invited to the White House last year, and tried to explain the plight of Uighurs in Xinjiang, the president asked: “Where is that? Where is that in China?” Then he could muster only this halfhearted assessment: “That’s tough stuff.” And as the Beijing-backed authorities in Hong Kong cracked down on protesters in November, Trump said that he was “standing with President Xi.”
No American political figure has done more to weaken our security alliances. For decades, Beijing has railed against what Chinese analysts call “Cold-war relic” and “zero-sum” U.S. alliances. It’s no mystery why they see it that way: America’s historic alliances and partnerships include about two-thirds of the world’s defense investment, forward-positioned troops around the globe, and the economic and political influence that follows. China’s most notable alliance today is its client-state relationship with North Korea. Trump has made a big deal of his friendship with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un — with nothing to show for it — while reiterating his support for withdrawing American troops from South Korea, a long-standing Chinese Communist Party goal. Against allies, Trump has threatened tariffs, turned burden-sharing talks into protection rackets and said that some of our European friends — including countries that fought alongside us in Afghanistan for years — are “worse than China.” Breaking faith with Europe has made it harder for key allies to say no to China’s Huawei as a provider for 5G wireless networks, lest they be seen as buckling to a bullying Trump. With four more years, little would be left of generations of American diplomacy and alliance-building.
The Trump administration has also showed scant regard for the nonpartisanship and professionalism that characterize, and sustain, our military. The Navy, already shaken by Trump’s interference in the war-crimes case of SEAL Edward Gallagher, then witnessed the firing of Capt. Brett Crozier for sounding an alarm about the health of the sailors under his command. China’s propaganda apparatus wasted little time in taking advantage, drawing comparisons between Crozier and Li Wenliang, the Chinese physician who was punished, and subsequently died of covid-19, after trying to warn the world about the outbreak.
Finally, Trump has freely surrendered U.S. power and influence in international institutions, withdrawing representation and offering no serious plans for reform. From the United Nations Human Rights Council to the International Telecommunication Union, the American leadership vacuum effectively leaves Beijing to rewrite the rules and standards that could frame ideological and technological competition with China for decades. All this, while China is moving to recast the basic architecture of the Internet and tilt technological standards to favor its own firms and authoritarian values. And Trump’s response to Beijing’s pressure on the World Health Organization has been to threaten to withdraw funding, which would surrender it to even greater Chinese influence.
Trump would have us believe that he, and only he, will defend America from China’s malfeasance. In reality, his incoherence, bluster and, at some critical moments, retreat, have handed Beijing a historic opportunity to assert itself in the global hierarchy. As professor Yan Xuetong, a leading Chinese strategist, has put it, “Trump has undermined the U.S.-led alliance system, which has improved China’s international environment.” Yan has also assessed that “since Trump took office, China’s relations with U.S. allies including Japan have generally improved. Actually I think China is seeing the best strategic opportunity since the end of the Cold War.” The coronavirus has only raised the stakes. In the present crisis, as Chinese nationalist writer Li Guangman recently put it, Beijing sees a “watershed … dividing the old and new global order.” In other words, more of the same could deliver a decisive advantage for China’s authoritarian model, at the expense of the openness and democracy that America at its best has stood for.
As a strategic competitor, China welcomes a polarized, paralyzed America. Trump’s answer has been a raft of policies that play into China’s long-range plans while lashing out more recently with rhetoric that encourages bigotry and a surge of hate crimes against Asian Americans. Beijing sees an opportunity to call into question the American project, and liberal democracy itself. One thing they’re banking on is four more years of Trump.
Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to the president’s Associated Press interview. The interview was with Reuters.