Special Report: How U.S. China Policy Transformed Under Trump
President Trump began his term by launching the trade war with China that he promised on the campaign trail. By mid-2020, however, Trump was no longer the public face of policy-making in China, as he became increasingly absorbed in domestic issues, giving carte blanche to his top aides to pursue a cascade of harsh policies towards China.
Why is this important: Trump alone has not reshaped relations with China. But his trade war has upended global norms, paving the way for administration officials to pursue policies that a few years earlier would have been unthinkable.
- Trump-era China policy often had two distinct strands: policies Trump led personally and policies led by officials with expertise in China.
- In some cases, Trump’s own actions ran counter to the stated goals of his China-focused national security staff, including Trump’s disparaging attitude toward allies and his prioritization of trade talks over sanctions. .
Here is a timeline of the evolution of US policy toward China under Trump:
End of 2016: a surprising electoral result leaves many guessing what turn US-China relations could take. Initially, there are fears that, despite his tough campaign rhetoric regarding China’s trade practices, President Trump is getting closer to Chinese President Xi Jinping.
- But an early December 2016 phone call between the president-elect and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen — the first such direct contact between top US and Taiwanese leaders since at least 1979 — quickly reframes expectations and foreshadows the diplomatic iconoclasm of the Trump administration.
2017: A trade war and nothing else. As promised, Trump levies tariffs on billions of dollars worth of Chinese goods, sparking a trade war that spans most of Trump’s presidency.
2018: A whole-of-government approach begins to take shape.
- The Indo-Pacific National Security Strategy Framework is approved in early 2018, and a Trump-era China strategy is beginning to emerge.
- US Pacific Command changes its name to Indo-Pacific Command in an effort to counter China’s rise.
- The Department of Justice launches its China Initiative, an effort to disrupt China’s covert activities in the United States
2019: The United States is getting tougher, with some safeguards.
- Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is becoming a leading figure in the US push against China, publicly accusing the Chinese Communist Party of seeking “international dominance”.
- Trump’s desire to seal a trade deal with China, however, has prevented administration officials from pursuing sanctions against Chinese officials deemed complicit in human rights abuses.
2020: All bets are off. The year is reshaping many aspects of the US-China relationship.
- After years of tariffs and negotiations, the Phase 1 trade deal is signed in January, giving President Trump a PR-ready “victory.”
- But after the coronavirus outbreak, Trump agrees to blame China as a way to deflect blame for his own administration’s failures to effectively deal with the growing number of cases in the United States. His racist invocation of the “Chinese virus” is exacerbating anti-Chinese racism, as attacks on Asian Americans grow across the country.
- With a trade deal signed and a fresh grudge against China, Trump is lifting the floodgates, allowing staff across all agencies to push forward long-desired actions on China-related issues across the board.
- With Trump conspicuously absent from China policymaking, Pompeo is becoming the public face of US China policy.
By the Numbers: Whole-of-Government Approach 2020
In 2020, the Trump administration took at least 210 China-related public actions that spanned at least 10 departments, according to publicly available data, demonstrating what the administration calls a “whole-of-government” strategy.
Why is this important: The full impact of so many actions taken in such a short time has yet to be felt — leaving the Biden administration with the daunting task of sorting through these new policies.
- 22 actions of the Ministry of Justice, including charges and arrests.
- 60 State Department shares, including visa restrictions, travel advisories, diplomatic actions and public statements.
- 27 White House actions, including executive orders, signing of bills, and signing of the phase one trade agreement.
- 23 actions of the Department of Defense, including freedom of navigation operations, Taiwan Strait transits, and the release of reports and other information.
- 16 Department of Homeland Security actions, including blocking the importation of articles made by forced labor and the publication of reports and statements.
- 24 shares of the Treasury Department, including penalties.
- 13 actions of the Department of Commerce, including export controls, entity listing additions and notices.
- 3 actions of the Office of the United States Trade Representative, including publication of reports and public statement.
- 2 actions of the Energy Department, including the designation of China as a “foreign adversary”.
- 2 actions of the Export-Import Bank the United States.
- 6 Federal Communications Commission actions, including designating Huawei and ZTE as national security threats.
- 1 action by the Department of Agriculture, an interim report on agricultural trade with China.
- 1 action by the National Security Agency, a cybersecurity advisory regarding cyber actors linked to China.
- 1 action by the Department of Education, a letter sent to university officials regarding Confucius Institutes.
- 2 actions of the Department of Labor, including a letter and a list of goods made with forced labor.
Some actions have been criticized as counterproductive and detrimental to American values, such as restrictions on Chinese journalists and American withdrawal from the World Health Organization, in part because of China’s influence on the organization.
In 2020, the Trump administration also imposed sanctions on 90 Chinese entities or individuals, representing 11.5% of total U.S. sanctions designated last year, according to data compiled by the Center for a New American Security.
What they say
A senior government official knowledge of the Trump administration’s China strategy told me that China’s coercive economic practices and the unique threats it poses to U.S. national security interests and values require new thinking:
- “The United States had to take the lead and take measures that were seen as extreme. This is not the thinking of the establishment in Washington.”
The results: “I think we’ve proven that we’re right in many ways. You can impose economic costs on China without the world collapsing. China has been extremely restrained in its retaliation. The United States, in as the largest economy in the world, had to take the lead and show the world is not going to end.”
Regarding the Biden administration: “I think it’s a good dynamic for the next team to come,” the official said.