Donald Trump’s appointment of the radical China hawk Peter Navarro to a position in his White House is the clearest signal yet that he may implement aggressive trade policies toward China. But depending on how China policy is ultimately made in the new administration, it also seems to raise the chances of a war being fought with bombs and bullets rather than with tariffs and quotas.
Navarro, an economics professor at the University of California, Irvine, won Trump’s attention for his popular books and documentary film on what Navarro called “the damage and carnage that China’s trade policies have wrought on the American economic heartland.” Navarro’s work portrays Beijing as working systematically to hollow out the U.S. manufacturing and defense industrial base while pursuing economic and military hegemony in East Asia. In books with titles like Death by China and Crouching Tiger: What China’s Militarism Means for the World, Navarro makes clear that he views the “China threat” in both economic and military terms. “Whenever we buy products made in China,” he writes in the latter work, “we as consumers are helping to finance a Chinese military buildup that may well mean to do us and our countries harm.”
Chinese officials and academics have long worried that the United States will seek to crudely quash their country’s rise, and in Navarro they have found the perfect foil. His solution to this twin economic/military problem is for the United States to “rebalance” its trade relationship with Beijing by drastically curtailing imports. The intention is not just to create new jobs, but also to actively harm the Chinese economy so that the country is less able to rival the United States and its allies in East Asia. At the same time, these policies would reconstitute the American manufacturing and defense industrial base and so boost its “comprehensive national power,” making it more prepared for any future conflict with China.
How much influence Navarro will have in his role as head of the newly-created White House National Trade Council is unclear. White House advisors enjoy a proximity to power that their counterparts in other agencies cannot match, an advantage likely to be magnified in an administration that values the views of governmental outsiders. It is easy to imagine that Trump will assign more weight to the views of Navarro, a loyal advisor who shares his worldview, than the intelligence briefers and foreign policy bureaucrats that the president-elect seems to instinctively distrust.
It is also not difficult to see why both Navarro’s diagnosis of American economic woes and his proposed solutions might find favor with Donald Trump. His thinking ties together numerous strands of the president-elect’s foreign and domestic policies. Both have a zero-sum and belligerent view of the Sino-American relationship, a mistaken view of the harms caused to the United States by trade deficits, and a fetish for long-gone manufacturing jobs.
But while Trump’s views on these issues have been inchoate and intuitive, Navarro’s are well-developed, systematic, and offer a clear course of action to an incoming administration which has pledged to “Make America Great Again”: confront China. The new administration’s benign view of Vladimir Putin’s Russia seems to make it even more likely that it will regard Beijing as America’s main strategic rival, guilty of causing willful harm not only to America’s foreign interests but also its workers at home.
If Navarro establishes a grip over U.S. China policy through his relationship with Trump, then his influence is likely to extend beyond economic policy and into security issues. Navarro has written that he expects China’s slowing economy and rising social discontent to lead the country to “implode,” and Beijing to then attempt to mobilize nationalism by stirring conflict in Taiwan or the South China Sea. He has also stressed the importance of containing Chinese expansionism through military means if necessary. Any attempt by Beijing to consolidate its hold over the Spratly Islands, he believes, would be a prelude to a Chinese grab for Taiwan unless there was a strong international response.
Navarro’s appointment hence means that an advocate of the militarized containment of China has the ear of the next president of the United States. This is even more alarming given that the policies Navarro proposes – undermining the Chinese economy and damaging Beijing’s “core interests” through, for instance, helping Taiwan develop submarines – threaten to provoke exactly the belligerent, nationalist response from China that he claims to fear. It is hard to escape the conclusion that Navarro, like other radical China hawks, is willing to contemplate a Sino-American war and may even view it as an inevitable necessity to arrest China’s rise.
For Navarro to have his views represented so close to the Oval Office hence dramatically increases the stakes in any future Sino-American crisis – as well as making such a crisis more likely to begin with. Whether Beijing is deterred or provoked by this remains to be seen, but it is on this question that the immediate future of the region – as well as the fate of the world’s two largest economies – now depends.
Andrew Gawthorpe is a Lecturer in History and Security Studies at Leiden University. He tweets at @andygawt