President Trump’s China policy is starting to resemble a pro-wrestling match where one wrestler manhandles the other, throws him to the ground and has him pinned – for a long two seconds – until he miraculously escapes. It’s good theater, but it’s tough on the audience.
Unlike pro-wrestling, however, Trump’s many chances to pin Xi Xinping have been for real.
Most recently, U.S.-imposed tariffs are causing real pain on the People’s Republic of China (PRC)’s already slowing economy – and indeed are panicking China’s leaders. Back in January, Trump had Xi Xinping down and with both shoulder blades touching the mat – and then let him up with a three-month reprieve. Now China is back on the mat as the reprieve expires March 1st and tariffs are set to increase from 10 to 25 percent.
But wait, another miraculous escape is in the works – and all in exchange for the PRC buying American soybeans and promising to stop stealing US technology – which Beijing claims it never does anyway.
It’s not as if us wrestling fans aren’t used to this.
Last year Trump had Chinese telecom company, ZTE, on the mat and in a stranglehold. But just before the ref’s “three count” Trump let ZTE up for $1 billion dollars and inserting American compliance officers into the firm. The former is small change and the latter will ultimately be useless. Xi and Chinese leadership are no doubt still pinching themselves.
And more recently, Trump was tossing China’s flagship telecom company, Huawei, around the ring – requesting Canada detain and extradite Meng Wanzhou, the company’s CFO, for sanctions busting and fraud. And at the same time, Trump was encouraging allied nations to cut loose from Huawei over security concerns, and drafting an executive order declaring Huawei off-limits to US companies.
But now, despite having Huawei and the PRC nearly pinned, the President’s tweets suggest Huawei maybe isn’t so bad after all. And there’s talk of cancelling Meng’s extradition request as another sweetener to reach a trade deal that Beijing needs far more than does Washington. And if that’s not sweet enough, there’s a move afoot to remove sanctions Washington recently imposed on a Chinese company for stealing the U.S. company, Micron Technology’s microchip secrets.
One hears the wrestling fans: “Holy cow! How’d they get out of that one?”
Maybe they shouldn’t be surprised.
In an earlier round, Mr. Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy on North Korea had China collared. For the first time in memory a U.S. administration seemed serious about squeezing a Kim regime. This caused Beijing to squirm as much as Pyongyang and it was working – with the referee calling down the count. But then Xi gave Kim Jong Un a “talking to” to ensure he didn’t go wobbly with the Americans – and Xi also eased whatever sanctions Beijing was “sort of” enforcing on North Korea.
Mr. Trump’s response? Secondary sanctions on Chinese banks propping up North Korea? Nope. Instead, Beijing got up off the mat and caught its breath.
And then Japanese Navy surveillance aircraft spotted Chinese ships off-loading fuel to NK ships (repeatedly.) Caught in flagrante delicto and on camera, this practically had the PRC down and waiting to be pinned. No such luck, however, and soon they’re right back up.
It’s not as if Trump hasn’t had other chances.
China’s treatment of its Muslim Uighur population should put it down for the count. But only if Washington sanctions the PRC for the human rights abomination taking place in East Turkestan – and howls to high heaven that the words “concentration camps” mean the same thing they did in 1945 and “never again.” While Congress is interested, the Trump administration is by and large letting slide this chance to put away Beijing.
And Mr. Trump’s dealings with Taiwan have been a rapid-fire series of throws tossing the PRC to the mat and then letting it up.
Soon after taking office, Trump spoke on the phone with Taiwan’s President Tsai. At long last a U.S. President decided to speak to whomever he wants to speak. But when Xi Xinping complained, Trump apologized.
Later, Trump signed the Taiwan Travel Act calling for senior officials to visit Taiwan. But when the American Institute in Taiwan, the de facto embassy, opened its new building the official U.S. representative at the ceremony was senior in name only.
And then the Administration finally canceled the PRC’s invitation to the RIMPAC exercise – but didn’t invite Taiwan in its place. A month later it let the U.S. Army conduct disaster response training with PLA.
Allowing Taiwan’s President Tsai to speak at the Reagan Library was a good move. But meanwhile, Washington allows the PRC Ambassador in Washington to continue spewing calumny and threats against America and its friends – instead of sending him back to Beijing, persona non grata.
Will Trump Finish The Match?
Regularly sending U.S. Navy ships through the Taiwan Straits and conducting more Freedom of Navigation Operations in two years than the previous administration did over eight years are also good “wrestling moves,” but alone won’t pin anyone. That’s where trade and economic pressure come in. Cutting a ‘win win’ deal on trade undercuts the Navy’s efforts and allows the PRC to once again squirm out of what looks like a solid hold.
Of course, unlike pro wrestling, the outcome of the U.S.-China competition is not “fixed” in advance. And Trump has gotten China policy mostly right, but like every administration, he has to deal with competing factions. One wants to “pin” the Chinese, the other wants to keep the PRC “off the mat” and help it up if it gets in trouble. And over at the State Department and Department of Defense, old habits of appeasing China linger.
In real life, President Trump only gets so many chances to pin the PRC. Unfortunately, he’s already squandered quite a few. We will soon see if he’s got the killer instinct or just can’t quite finish the match.