Trans-Pacific View | Diplomacy

How Unique Is Trump’s China Policy?

The current U.S. approach reflects a sea change on China that began before Trump’s election – and will continue after his administration ends.

By Keikichi Takahashi for
How Unique Is Trump’s China Policy?
Credit: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

The Trump administration has argued that it ended the engagement policy toward the People’s Republic of China that previous U.S. administrations had pursued since the establishment of a formal relationship in 1979. According to the United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China a document published by the White House in May 2020 in accordance with the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act – “United States policy toward the PRC [People’s Republic of China] was largely premised on a hope that deepening engagement would spur fundamental economic and political opening in the PRC and lead to its emergence as a constructive and responsible global stakeholder, with a more open society.” However, more than 40 years later, it has become evident that this approach did not work. To respond to Beijing’s attempt to “reshape the international order in its favor,” the document continues, “the Administration has adopted a competitive approach to the PRC, based on … a tolerance of greater bilateral friction.”

With few exceptions, the American media has not paid much attention to this document, probably as it was perceived as lacking novelty. The view that Trump ended the engagement policy toward China has already been widely shared by pundits. Some even say that Trump started a new cold war with China. But is Trump’s China policy as unique as it is generally perceived?

It should be noted that President Barack Obama, Trump’s predecessor, already began shifting his China policy away from the engagement policy. Initially, Obama’s attitude toward China was conciliatory, to be sure. In a summit with Chinese President Hu Jintao in November 2009, Obama and Hu agreed to respect each other’s “core interests,” astonishing American allies and friends, who watched China’s assertion of territorial sovereignty with a vigilant eye. Since then, however, Obama’s stance toward China hardened under the “pivot” or “rebalance” strategy, though there was a lull after Xi Jinping succeeded Hu as the new Chinese leader in November 2012. To deter Beijing’s military adventurism, the Obama administration concluded a series of security agreements with Asia-Pacific countries, such as Australia, Japan, and Vietnam. Furthermore, it promoted the Trans–Pacific Partnership (TPP) with the stated goal not to “let countries like China write the rules of the global economy,” while rejecting participation in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which Beijing established to finance its Belt and Road Initiative.

Immediately after his inauguration in January 2017, Trump pulled out of the TPP and then started placing tariffs on Chinese goods to put pressure on Beijing to comply with American economic demands. As clearly shown by these developments, Trump’s China policy is different from Obama’s in that while the latter adopted a multilateral approach, the former put much more emphasis on a unilateral one. It should not be forgotten, however, that they share the common strategic purpose of preventing China from establishing its hegemony in Asia-Pacific. In his book By More Than Providence: Grand Strategy and American Power in the Asia Pacific since 1783, U.S. Asia specialist Michael J. Green says, “If there is one central theme in American strategic culture as it has applied to the Far East over time, it is that the United States will not tolerate any other power establishing exclusive hegemonic control over Asia or the Pacific.” “Put another way,” Green goes on, “for over two centuries, the national interest of the United States has been identified by key leaders as ensuring that the Pacific Ocean remains a conduit for American ideas and goods to flow westward, and not for threats to flow eastward toward the homeland.” Green’s book was written before Trump came into office. However, Trump’s China policy is definitely in line with the diplomatic tradition whose origins, according to Green, can be traced back to the American foundation period.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive presidential candidate for the Democrats, and his policy advisers are critical of Trump’s unilateral approach to China; however, they do not criticize his competitive approach per se. Instead, they have criticized Trump as weak toward China, particularly charging that he left the United States unprepared for the COVID-19 pandemic by naively believing that China would succeed in containing the coronavirus. Behind this argument, there are widespread negative views of China among ordinary Americans. The Pew Research Center conducted a public opinion survey in March and found that 66 percent of the respondents had an unfavorable view of China. According to a report from the Center, it is “the most negative rating for the country since the Center began asking the question in 2005.”

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Some pundits argue that the United States should back down from the western Pacific and allow China to establish its hegemony in the region. Whichever candidate – Trump or Biden – wins in the November election, there is little possibility that such a course would be adopted. As long as Beijing seeks to establish its hegemony over the western Pacific, high tensions between the United States and China will last and become a new normal. This means that even if Trump’s China policy is, as many pundits say, unique in relation to policies of past administrations, it will not look so  different compared to future administrations.

Keikichi Takahashi is an Associate Professor at Osaka University in Japan, and visiting scholar at Sigur Center for Asian Studies, Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University.  His specialty is American diplomacy toward East Asia. Last year, he published a Japanese book entitled China or Japan? The American Search for a Partner in East Asia, 1941 – 1954.