The hawks descend on China

Donald Trump’s approach to China is strongly influenced by hawkish conservatives, urging him to press on with the trade war and challenge Beijing’s ambitious plans for international expansion. But as Duncan Bartlett reports, it’s not just the right wing in Washington that is ideologically opposed to the Asian giant

President Trump’s Twitter feed colourfully reveals the subjects uppermost in his mind. His favourite topics are himself, his current and past achievements and the apparent roaring success of his presidency. In a typical tweet in November he proclaimed: ‘The White House is running very smoothly and the results for our nation are obviously very good. We are the envy of the world!’

The president also tweets on foreign policy issues, including in Asia, but rarely exhibits deep insight into the region’s complex politics or culture.

However, there are a group of men around him who see themselves as experts on Asia. They have the ear of the president – and they appear to be intent on making life awkward for China.

Circling hawks

These hawks insist on a robust interventionist approach towards foreign policy. Their current battle is with trade, where their goal is to pressure China into reducing its trade deficit with the US by imposing huge tariffs on its imports into America.

Trade policy advisor Peter Navarro is one of the ringleaders. He has written a book called Death by China and has recently been regaling any business leaders who suggest it may be time to call a truce in the trade war.

Mr Navarro’s ally, former chief strategist Steve Bannon, now sits outside the president’s inner circle but remains focussed on what he sees as abuses of power by President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party.

Currently, the most influential hawk is Mr Trump’s trusted right-hand man, Vice President of the United States, Mike Pence. In November Mr Pence took a direct swipe against President Xi’s landmark foreign policy, the Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to revive ancient trade routes from East to West, with massive infrastructure spending along the way.

Pence vs Xi

When Mr Pence took to the stage at an APEC Summit in Papua New Guinea last month, he belittled the plan, describing it as a ‘constricting belt’ and a ‘one-way road’.He even warned small countries – including Papua New Guinea – not to be seduced by Chinese money. China’s loans, he claimed, come with strings attached and land other countries in ‘staggering debt’.

When the APEC leaders posed for a photograph in lurid shirts at the end of the meeting, Mr Pence stood next to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, both men clad in similar bright red outfits. President Xi stood some distance away. The diplomatictension was manifest, and for the first time in APEC’s 25-year history, the summit ended with the leaders failing to agree on a joint communiqué.

The Chinese view

Prof. Linda Yueh believes the midterm elections strengthened Trump’s hand on China
Prof. Linda Yueh believes the midterm elections strengthened Trump’s hand on China

Later, the state-owned Chinese newspaper Global Times tried to put into words what their leader might have been thinking. Under the headline ‘China’s Belt and Road Initiative deserves more respect’, it asserted that ‘it is unscrupulous for US politicians to badmouth China’s goodwill by throwing dirt on the infrastructure initiative. As the world’s superpower, the US has done little to address the impoverishment beyond its borders. Even its own infrastructure is in a serious state of disrepair now, partly due to partisan disagreements over the rising US budget deficit’.

Deals with the US

Indeed, numerous Asian visitors to America have been shocked by the nation’s creaky infrastructure. Many airports are inefficient, highways are crowded and slow and there is only a fairly rudimentary railway network. When he was on the campaign trail, Donald Trump repeatedly called for its renewal, promising a $1 trillion spending bonanza.

‘The Chinese sources I have been speaking to would be pleased to rebuild America’s airports, should they be invited to do so,’ says Professor Linda Yueh from Oxford University.

But China is discovering that hostility to its global ambitions runs deep within the political establishment in Washington.

Left and right in step

Conservative Republicans relish opportunities to challenge China’s enormous economic power and its increasing political influence. They associate their knocks against China with Mr Trump’s ‘America First’ approach, and Mike Pence recently told the Washington Post that an ‘all-out cold war is coming if China doesn’t change course; we won’t back down’.

While Hawks on the Republican right enjoy this kind of rousing language, the Democrat Party can also be tough on China. Many of its politicians bewail what they perceive as Beijing’s denial of individual liberty, which is deeply ingrained in the nation’s social system and politics.

No apology

But China’s Communist Party makes no apology for running a one-party state and has been centralising its power under President Xi.

The media’s role is to support the Party and amplify its message internationally. Chinese reporters who cover Washington’s affairs for outlets such as Global Times almost always focus on the shortcomings of America’s political system. Furthermore, the Chinese government has been buying advertisements in US newspapers, trying to influence public opinion. President Trump told the United Nations this means China is interfering in the election process. Although it is questionable whether advertisements amount to political interference, politicians of all affiliations in the United States can cite many reasons why China should keep its distance from their election process.

Typical Trump

‘I think the outcome of the midterm elections strengthened Trump’s hand on China,’ Professor Yueh told me. ‘He may well press a bit harder and he could gain some bipartisan support. He’s considering truly massive tariffs on China now. But will he do that at a time when growth in the US economy is slowing?’

However, she adds: ‘One thing is certain, when he does run for election in 2020, Trump will inevitably declare that he has won the trade war, even if there is little economic evidence of a victory.’

Duncan Bartlett is the Editor of Asian Affairs and a former BBC World Service presenter

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