Since his inauguration, President Trump has backed off several core campaign positions, including making a stark reversal of his posture toward China. He has explained that rather than pursue a tough-on-China trade policy, he will capitulate on U.S. trade interests to win Beijing’s cooperation on North Korea. Taking a softer tack on China is misguided: It will hurt hundreds of thousands of U.S. workers and businesses, without changing Beijing’s behavior. The best and perhaps the only way to achieve results with China is to be strong and consistent about our priorities — on economic issues and national-security issues — rather than the reverse.
Bolstering our economy and creating good-paying jobs is one of the most important goals a president can pursue, especially given middle-class stagnation and discontent. Failing to address China’s unfair advantage on trade will mean hundreds of thousands of American workers and businesses must continue to compete on a skewed playing field. By dumping counterfeit and artificially cheap goods into our markets, denying the most productive U.S. companies fair access to its markets and relentlessly stealing the intellectual property of U.S. companies, China has robbed the U.S. economy of trillions of dollars and caused the loss of millions of U.S. jobs. Estimates by our government pin the cost of cyberespionage alone at $400 billion a year to the U.S. economy, 90 percent of which comes from China’s government. Retired Gen. Keith Alexander, the former director of the National Security Agency, has called the loss of industrial information and intellectual property through cybertheft “the greatest transfer of wealth in history.” The American worker can ill afford another soft-on-China presidency.
Under Chinese President Xi Jinping, Beijing will continue to act in its self-interest unless the United States does something to alter the status quo. And yet, despite numerous promises during the campaign to crack down on these unfair practices by China, Trump has failed to take any significant action after almost five months in office. In fact, he has made trade threats against U.S. allies such as Canada and South Korea while giving China a pass.
The reason? Trump believes that obliging China on trade will win its cooperation in handling North Korea. He’s gone so far as to promise even more favorable trade terms if China can “solve the North Korea problem.” This approach deeply misreads China’s motivations, and the president seems to have just realized it. He recently tweeted: “While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out. At least I know China tried!” We will wait to see if this tweet actually signals a shift in U.S. policy, but no doubt it is a confession that the president’s conciliatory approach toward China has failed.
The president should have known from the very beginning.
Several decades of history have shown that accommodating China on trade will not yield greater collaboration in foreign policy. In this area, China has acted as it has on economic policy — it looks out for its own interests and does not shift course unless compelled to. So long as China can get away with engaging in the smallest amount of cooperation with the United States abroad while protecting its core economic interests, it will do so, especially if the United States gives away a major bargaining chip — trade — for free.
Trump seems to have done exactly that, accepting China’s bare-minimum concessions in exchange for putting U.S. trade and economic interests on the back burner. It is a lose-lose for the United States.
China has its own interests in a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. It wants to maintain a divided Korea, with North Korea as a buffer state. Concerned about the prospect of increased U.S. pressure, it has taken a few small steps in recent months to curb North Korea’s aggression. But China would prefer to contain the problem, not solve it.
To get China to actually bear down on its ally North Korea, the United States must have some leverage in dealing with Beijing. Because China’s government cares most about economic growth, trade and dominance in the region, our best bet is to be tough on trade and straightforward about our own national security interests in the region.
In truth, no one has a perfect solution to dealing with North Korea. But what absolutely doesn’t make sense is a Trump strategy that undermines South Korea and sells out American workers in the vague hope that China will start cooperating with the United States out of its good graces.
Rather than retreating from his position on trade, Trump should start consistently enforcing trade laws. Rather than retreating from our ally South Korea, Trump should strengthen ties. He ought to focus less on flattery and charm and heed President Teddy Roosevelt’s admonition to “speak softly and carry a big stick.” That’s the best way to help American workers and businesses. It’s the best way to get China to cooperate on North Korea, too.
Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, represents New York in the U.S. Senate and serves as minority leader.