Donald Trump’s erratic and inconsistent policy on China just to win the election will see him go down in history as a mercurial showman but a weak statesman.
In January, President Donald Trump was in the middle of a plan to use China to boost his election prospects. Battling an impeachment trial in the Senate in January, Trump signed the first phase of the much-talked-about trade deal with the Asian power. The deal helped the intensifying trade war between the two largest economies cool down to an extent.
Even as China struggled with the spread of the coronavirus pandemic in its earlier stage, Trump went gung-ho over his friendship with China. The POTUS even said at the World Economic Forum in Davos that he and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping loved each other.
Within the next two months, the reality underwent a stark change. The epicenter of the COVID-9 pandemic shifted from China to Europe, and then to America in a short span. Currently, the US is facing a mammoth challenge in containing the virus that has infected over a million people on its soil. The death toll of 67,000-plus in the US is also far higher than any country in the world.
Trump has consequently changed his tone and is now lashing out at the Chinese, holding them responsible for the global disaster. With just six months to go before the November 3 presidential election, odds don’t favor drastic improvement in the situation anytime soon. The incumbent knows that he is in a real spot to win the re-election bid, something that looked like a cakewalk even a few months ago.
As economy tumbles, Trump looks for an ‘enemy’
Trump’s most particular worry is the fact that the economy has gone into a long-term paralysis. With millions losing jobs and the plan for reopening the country not getting unanimous support, the president and his administration have got stuck badly. The vaccine could still be months or even years away. Unfortunately for Trump, who otherwise bothers little about given realities, there’s not much more to do apart from hoping against hope.
In this situation, he has decided to change the mode of how he uses China in his propaganda. From a position to show his constituencies that he has made a positive effort to tame the Chinese through a trade war, he is now transforming the strategy to punish China through a retaliatory war. One that will inevitably involve more the economy than the military.
From the claim that he loves Xi, Trump has now gone into an all-out attack mode against Beijing.
Even though he hasn’t directly spoken against his Chinese counterpart in connection with the pandemic(the two had a phone call in March in which they promised to help each other’s country in the fight against coronavirus), the two nations are at loggerheads officially. Trump has also tried to play the victim’s card saying China would do anything to see him lose the November election, giving a hint that he has not compromised on US interests.
The erratic China policy will create more problems for the US
Under Trump, the US’ policy towards China can be best termed ‘erratic’. With the nationalist agenda being the only narrative visible in Trump’s foreign policy, it is not difficult to understand that the president vouching for ‘America First’ mantra has gone all out after Beijing after the pandemic wreaked havoc. But that also makes his ground to praise China while concluding the trade deal vulnerable. It only exposes his tactic to divert the attention from the impeachment trial (the Senate eventually acquitted him). Put another way, Trump is prioritizing his own political interests before that of America. Sounds ironic, but that’s true.You will find more infographics at Statista
There are two elements that define Trump’s inconsistent policies with foreign powers, especially with the likes of China or Russia. First is, of course, his maverick personality that has dwarfed every institutional mechanism in the US and their ability to arrive at sound policies. Trump’s cult personality has reduced America’s foreign-policy decision-making to a one-man affair.
Trump only thinks from a vantage point
But the other even more dangerous element is Trump’s one-eyed viewpoints. The Republican leader is so much drowned in self-gratification that he thinks that his trade arrangement with China is something that will benefit the US by correcting the decades-old ‘injustice’ meted out to the American economy. To an extent, China is at a bigger disadvantage than America. For example, Alex Capri from the National University of Singapore feels China is more likely to lose in the short-run in the tech-war, especially if, the US, Europe, and Taiwan simultaneously apply technological controls.
With regard to the trade deal, too, Trump has threatened to scrap it if the Chinese did not honor the provisions in the wake of the outbreak. The Reuters also reported that the US could decide to shirk its trillion-dollar-plus debt to China as well. Even if that hits America, it is still a worthy election-time gamble for under-pressure Trump. The easier way to understand this is that while coronavirus has already hit China’s economy like the rest of the world, Trump’s sharp economic retaliations can put it more on the defensive.
However, while overdoing things to corner China, Trump also faces a trap. While under its previous leaderships China saw more consolidation of its ambition, Xi has channelized that ambition towards toppling the US as the global economic orchestrator. Known for its long-term goals, China is not going to let go of that ambition easily. Remaining a tough competitor against the US, especially as long as Trump’s inconsistent policy of treating Beijing as a frenemy continues, is key to Xi’s agenda.
In the past, the US leadership under Ronald Reagan was seen making bold use of the former USSR’s decline under Leonid Brezhnev. Xi seems to be a better candidate than Trump to be Reagan’s successor in policy-making today. Trump might be unpredictable against the Chinese, but Xi has a more solid plan to promote his country’s global ambition. We do not know if Trump has read enough of the history of international politics. At the moment at least, Trump’s topsy-turvy policy vis-a-vis China doesn’t look robust enough to earn him the reputation of a reliable statesman.