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Trump Now Has One Path to Re-Election: Through China

Crisis brings clarity.

The White House / YouTube

WASHINGTON– All roads lead to Xi.

That was the point of view of the Trump administration — particularly its business wing, led by Treasury Secretary Steven P. Mnuchin, economic pointman Lawrence A. Kudlow and Senior Counselor Jared Kushner — just two months ago. Trump’s stand against the Chinese strongmen, led now by the revanchist Xi Jinping, would be the preeminent legacy of his presidency, a reversal of fifty years of detente ushered in by President Nixon. 

But it would have to be put on hold.  Nationalism lagged a nagging stock market. No money, no honey. This commercial clique advised a dash toward a palliative trade deal with Beijing, the long-expected “China cave” in administration-friendly circles. Overdue confrontation with the Chinese  was the president’s central legacy, but a rocking stock market would guarantee the party was still going come January.  

At the same time, White House trade hawk Peter Navarro, and some of the administration’s more clear-eyed infighters, such as National Security Council aide Matt Pottinger, were warning of the emerging threat of a novel Coronavirus emanating from Wuhan. The internationally anonymous Chinese city was fourfold larger than Chicago, it was noted. This might be a problem. But the phenomenon was portrayed as more speed bump than spoiler. The “export boom from the trade deal will take longer because of the Chinese virus,” Kudlow told his old employer CNBC in February. 

And Nancy Pelosi, the eminent House speaker, was (now notoriously) in the Chinatown district of her native San Francisco warning that the real problem was jingoism toward the ethnically Chinese, nevermind the government across the Pacific that enslaves their cousins. Almost everyone got this wrong.  

As the White House begins phase one of an attempted re-opening of the American economy, it’s worth one more look at the discredited “phase one” trade deal inked with the Communist Party in late winter. The critics were correct, more than they could have imagined in the gnarliest nightmares. “Trump hopes to ride U.S.-China deal to win reelection,” a POLITICOdispatch reported on Valentine’s Day. It’s been broken hearts ever since. 

For the choice between the market and making a mark was a false one. Anyone with a 401k, a smartphone or a set of eyes can see that now. The peril of uncritical integration with the Chinese economy is unmasked as we’re wearing masks.  

It matters that China’s economy is at parity with the United States. At its apex, in the early Eighties, the Soviet Union was only a third as fearsome. Those who make sanguine assurances that the Chinese leadership is no successor to the Soviet ideological challenge to America are right.. The Chinese government puts the Bolsheviks to shame. Beijing’s system actually kind of works, trading economic opportunity for political freedom, as opposed to its ancestor, an Eastern bloc which delivered neither.

The Chinese leaders are more laconic than their Russian forebears. Xi Jinping has never publicly stated he’ll bury us. He hasn’t had to.  

It matters, for instance, that the United States can dubiously make enough of its own steel. That to survive the nastiest economic shockwave since the Depression, Washington must now further debt finance to, the Chinese.

Almost no one is calling for a hot war, and such overheated rhetoric must continue to be forcefully rejected. Overstretch in the Pacific is no quick-fix solution to agony at home. It would likely, of course, make it all much, much worse. 

But for perhaps the first time in generations, the threat warned against by the U.S. government is existential not exaggerated.

The challenge for mastery of the century has suddenly become one of survival in a new decade. Gone is the saber-rattling about the menace in Moscow. And allies of restraint can breathe easy that the United States, for the first time in thirty years, might now seriously entertain exiting the Middle East, as this magazine has called for, for eighteen years.

But to libertarian friends who say when goods stop crossing borders, bullets follow, I observe that in the current system, pathogens are the only true global citizens. The Coronavirus was borne out of Chinese recklessness — charitably, from one of the country’s heinous and cruel wet markets. Integration with a giant gangster state has brought the American way of life to a standstill, something only ever fantasized by Vladimir Putin, Osama bin Laden or the mullahs in Tehran.

Cynical conflation of Asian-Americans and the Chinese state must also be forcefully rejected. Not just immoral, it’s bad strategy, as it casts aside the plethora of Asian governments, such as the giants Japan, India and South Korea, that are cold toward Beijing, not to mention the hundreds of millions in China who yearn for a better way. But the bugbear of political correctness should not prevent clear-eyed appraisals: state-sanctioned cruelty exists outside the West, as well. Its consequences have now come to our shores.

As Bradley A. Thayer of the recently-resuscitated Committee on the Present Danger notes, the Chinese government is a “Han-centric” one. In other words, it’s ethno-nationalist. Despite his Communist lineage, Xi has more in common with Josef Stalin’s old rivals than the string of technocratic predecessors that preceded him before 2012, the year of his installation in Beijing. 

Washington should rebuild its supply chains in the Americas, presenting a rival model grounded in the open market and the open society. And the U.S. should view taking up a cause such as that of the Uyghurs —  the ethnically Turkic group the Chinese Communists heard into concentration camps — as an opportunity to issue an apology to the Muslim world. 

There’s just one problem. There’s a weird presidential election ahead of us. Joseph R. Biden, Jr., the presumptive Democratic nominee, has pivoted in recent days to outflanking Trump on China, rich for a politician who last year declared a fascist government “not bad folks,” and “not competition.”

But Biden’s underrated. He’s a pure pol. 

Anthony Blinken, the savvy, odds-on favorite to be Biden’s secretary of State, put out a powerful video last week dissecting Trumpian mismanagement of the complex China issue. The subtext of the message was that personal rapport with Xi obscured the president’s vision. 

Maybe so. But the Biden apparatchik’s casual castigation of Trump’s “trade war” underwhelms the case that his boss would be more serious than the incumbent on the matter, especially given the dubious financial ties of the former vice president’s progeny, and his months-old protestation that the Chinese government isn’t a problem.

Xi’s in for the long haul. But if Trump’s not careful, he’s not long for Washington. If he wants to stay politically above water, he’ll confront Beijing without blandishment. 

about the author

Curt Mills is a contributing editor at The American Conservative, where he previously served as senior reporter. He specializes in foreign policy and campaign coverage and has worked at The National Interest, U.S. News and World Report, Washington Examiner, and the Spectator, and his work has appeared in UnHerd and Newsweek. He was a 2018-2019 Robert Novak Journalism fellow.

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