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What if Trump’s Trade War With China Goes Too Well?

A conversation with a former administration staffer reveals a hawkish mindset that could be disastrous.
Trump China

“America’s strategy when it comes to China is easy to understand: crush them. Drive them into the ground. Make sure that they can’t undo American power and influence not just in Asia but around the world. That’s Trump’s goal, and he is doing one hell of a job. I couldn’t be happier.”

That’s the response I received over drinks when I asked a former senior Trump administration official—speaking on background—what Washington’s strategy was when it comes to the People’s Republic of China. “We allowed China to rise too far, too fast, and now we are paying the price,” the official said. “Competition is one thing, but Beijing is set on dominating Asia. We all know what happens next—their power will go global. And considering their form of government, how repressive it is, how evil it is, we must oppose them. They’re even more dangerous than the USSR.”

From there, it got even more interesting. “What a lot of people don’t understand is the president and his team are in this for the long haul. They won’t pull any punches. If China won’t back down on its economic imperialism, Trump will hit them with more tariffs. If Beijing tries to take over the South China Sea any more then it already has, we will ally with Vietnam or start really making sure Taiwan has all the arms it could ever need. In short, we will contain China’s rise. We won’t let this threat go unchecked like the Obama administration.”

Ah, that word, “containment.” I was hoping my colleague would say that, as I have long suspected this was, in fact, the Trump administration’s real strategy. But here is the challenge: what happens if we successfully “contain” China? What does winning such a competition look like? Have we thought any of this through?

No we haven’t. Well, at least I hadn’t until recently. To be quite honest, I consider myself a so-called “China hawk.” I am for making sure that China does not bend the rules of the international system in Asia so much that they no longer have any meaning. I don’t want to see China turn the South China Sea into its own personal lake, invade Taiwan and crush its democracy, cheat on trade, or steal our intellectual property. I want to make sure Washington stays ahead of Beijing militarily, that we make sure America’s national interests are preserved with strong alliances that stand the test of time.

But many others who share my views—now the dominant strand of thinking on Beijing—want to go much further. They see the rise of China as an existential threat. They see Beijing quickly surpassing Washington as the world’s largest economy, developing a world-class military that could someday soon defeat the U.S. in battle, all while trying to kick America out of Asia for good. It’s an outlook that unites neoconservatives with some foreign policy realists.

It certainly seems clear that China, over the long run, does have an interest in trying to maximize its own national power while also becoming the hegemonic master of Asia. It’s a model many nations ride to superpower status—think the United States for starters. But coming to grips with that and responding appropriately is very different than trying to “crush” their regime.

My worry is that we have not stopped to think about what our rush to take on China—diplomatically, economically, militarily, and beyond—actually means in practice. What are the consequences? Are we prepared for the inevitable blowback?

For example, let’s say, come March 1, Washington and Beijing are unable to come to an agreement over China’s mercantilist trade policies, and the Trump administration slaps massive tariffs on Chinese goods. What happens then? Clearly, there will be an impact on the U.S. economy, as China will retaliate. But what if our attempt to punish Beijing for its deceitful trade practices works out too well?

Here’s an example we should consider. Imagine that Beijing’s economy really starts to slow courtesy of Trump’s trade war, and thanks to mounting debt, it is unable to push through a massive stimulus package to keep growth steady as it has in the past. Xi Jinping, China’s now president-for-life, will surely blame Washington for his troubles and respond.

In fact, we might already have a preview of what is to come. The rhetoric coming out of Beijing these days is downright scary, with constant talk of being ready for war and veiled threats against Taiwan. If Xi really starts to feel the heat at home as a result of trade challenges with America, he might have to unleash a new wave of nationalism to distract the public. This could set the stage for an armed conflict in Asia that no one wants and many would suffer from.

My sneaking suspicion is that the Trump administration has much grander designs—like making China so unstable that its people cry out for change, and even regime change is possible.

“If we could only get that lucky,” explained the former Trump administration official with a big smile on his face. When I asked what would happen when a nation that is now the second largest economy on the planet, home to over a billion people, with various ethnic groups hoping for independence, armed with nuclear weapons that can reach the U.S. homeland, potentially implodes, the answer was quite telling.

“Not our problem.”

Harry J. Kazianis serves as executive editor of The National Interest and director of the Center for the National Interest’s new Korea program. You can follow him on Twitter @Grecianformula.



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