|President Nixon and Premier Zhou Enlai toast in Beijing (February 25, 1972)|
ChinaFile hosted a conversation during the Republican National Convention on Trump's China Policy. It was kicked off with comments from his advisor Peter Navarro, a business professor at University of California Irvine. Along with others, I took part in the conversation. My comment is copied below. The conversation can be found here.
For starters, Republicans should stop seeking out the next war. Historically, Bush II was good at war-making—though maybe not war-winning. The fear and simplistic narrative of war, splitting the world into ‘us’ versus ‘them,’ can be an effective tool to mislead and corral the public. Such a tool is especially potent in a national campaign during a time when people are struggling economically and told to dread impending, random violence. Donald Trump now looks to formulate another war, a trade war with China. The narrative is custom-made to evoke fear and nationalism: A far-off country with an authoritarian government and a bone to pick is maliciously stealing your livelihood and weakening your country.
There is considerable imprecision, narrowness, and risk in Trump’s China narrative.
First, an examination of history will teach us that manufacturing began declining in the U.S. in the 1970s, long before China came on the scene as an industrial powerhouse. Huge structural shifts were caused by our North American allies via N.A.F.T.A., but we are not declaring “war” (i.e., needlessly demonizing) Canada and Mexico because of their economic impact on the U.S. (But based on Trump’s wall and immigration rhetoric, we cannot seriously doubt that he would not escalate conflict with America’s southern neighbor.)
The second fundamental problem with Trump’s China narrative, reflected in Mr. Navarro’s comments above, is that it seems to seriously misunderstand the motivations of China’s leaders. As detailed in the extensive economic and political analysis on ChinaFile and elsewhere, China’s economic policy is heavily driven by domestic concerns of prosperity and “social stability”. China did not set out to displace American factory workers or derail the American economy. In fact, American prosperity and consumers play an important part in China’s development model.
A third problem with Trump’s argument is normative. To demonize China at-large in the next great “war” engenders greater animosity in Chinese people. As we all witnessed after the recent arbiration ruling on the South China Sea, Chinese nationalism can burn hot when given the opportunity to direct itself at a foreign enemy. The U.S. further empowers Beijing autocrats by playing into this narrative. Echoing David Wertime, many Chinese look to the openness and tolerance of Americans as inspiration. A China policy which seeks to make enemies of Chinese people is counterproductive.
What does a productive China policy look like?
The U.S. should win over the Chinese people by being a model of prosperity and dignity. This begins at home. America has economically disenfranchised much of its population over the past three decades, foremost because of its own economic and financial policies. While America’s adjusted GDP has nearly tripled since 1980, wages have remained stagnant for most Americans. (Nominal GDP grew more than six times.) The size of the U.S. economy has grown 30% since China entered the WTO in 2001. (Nominal GDP nearly doubled.) The problem is not growth, it’s distribution of new wealth and opportunity for the average person to enjoy that growth. Discrimination and marginalization of ethnic and religious minorities in America, a bulging prison population, and incredibly frequent gun homicides also damage our ability to serve as a model to China. Pursuing fairness and economic justice at home is a critical part of influencing China.
The U.S. should encourage fairness and rule of law in China by demanding more of American companies which too often take advantage of poor enforcement of labor and environmental laws in China and elsewhere. America should also hold up peaceful human rights activists and non-governmental organizations as models of citizenship. This includes U.S. officials frequently mentioning the names of Chinese people and organizations who are arbitrarily threatened or imprisoned by Chinese authorities. These people are often seeking grassroots and equitable solutions to Chinese social problems which are broadly acknowledged by Chinese citizens. By championing activists and NGOs, the U.S. will be recognizing the creativity and potential of the Chinese people and in turn making them allies in our China policy rather than enemies.
In short, America’s China policy should include modeling principled governance and leadership. But whether the Republicans under Trump are capable or willing to make America a model nation is a question that arouses great skepticism.