When it comes to handling China, plenty of action but no clear plan

When it comes to handling China, plenty of action but no clear plan
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President TrumpDonald TrumpDOJ asks Supreme Court to revive Boston Marathon bomber death sentence, in break with Biden vow Biden looking to build momentum for Putin meeting DOJ tells media execs that reporters were not targets of investigations MORE has launched yet another grenade into the U.S.-China relationship. After agreeing to a trade war ceasefire with China just two weeks ago, he has once again threatened to impose $50 billion in new tariffs on a range of technology goods at the heart of China’s highly protectionist industrial policy, “Made in China 2025,” as well as signaled that new investment restrictions would be announced by June 30.

The move underscores the strength of President Trump’s overall approach to China, which encompasses a much needed determination to stand up and push back when China doesn’t play by the rules, but also highlights its weakness of head-spinning tactical moves with little evident strategy. Ultimately, it is an approach to China that inspires hope but has thus far failed to help realize U.S. interests.

A central focus of the Trump administration’s China policy has been to rebalance the bilateral trade deficit, to create a level playing field for U.S. companies trying to do business in China, and to protect U.S. technology with national security implications from Chinese acquisition. The failure of bilateral negotiations to achieve progress in these areas in President Trump’s first year contributed to the development of a far more assertive approach. The administration has threatened tariffs, and taken initial steps to revise the laws around foreign investment in the United States and to strengthen export controls.

While these moves are important to gain the attention of the Chinese, the ensuing disjointed negotiation process and lack of consistency concerning U.S. demands muddle the administration’s message. Most notably, in April, the administration enacted a seven-year ban on the purchase of U.S. goods by the Chinese technology company ZTE, only to have President Trump express concern for ZTE workers and move to reverse the ban in May. No surprise, then, that when asked what success in trade negotiations might look like, Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven MnuchinDemocrats justified in filibustering GOP, says Schumer Yellen provides signature for paper currency Biden's name will not appear on stimulus checks, White House says MORE could do no better than to respond, “You’ll know it when you see it.”

A similar lack of clarity surrounds the administration’s Taiwan policy. The White House has adopted a number of proactive measures in support of Taiwan. President Trump signed into law the Taiwan Travel Act, which supports visits between senior U.S. officials and their Taiwanese counterparts, and allowed the marketing license for American companies to sell Taiwan the technology necessary to build its own submarines.

Most recently, the administration pushed back against Beijing’s efforts to coerce foreign airlines to stop identifying Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau as separate entities on their websites. It called Beijing’s play “Orwellian nonsense.” Yet, President Trump has also waffled on the issue of Taiwan, first accepting a call from President Tsai Ing Wen, but later stating he would clear all such calls with Beijing. Taiwan is among the most sensitive and potentially volatile issues in the U.S.-China relationship. The United States cannot afford an inconsistent message or confused policy.

Finally, there are signs of a potential toughening of U.S. policy in the South China Sea. U.S. Pacific Command disinvited China from its 2018 Rim of the Pacific Exercise in the wake of continued Chinese militarization of the features it controls in the South China Sea. Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisBiden's is not a leaky ship of state — not yet Rejoining the Iran nuclear deal would save lives of US troops, diplomats The soft but unmatched power of US foreign exchange programs MORE has also pushed forward with naval operations that signal to the Chinese continued American commitment to freedom of navigation in the Asia Pacific. Yet, President Trump has made repeated reference to the possibility of drawing down U.S. forces in Asia, undercutting the confidence of Washington’s allies in the staying power of the United States and in its ability to counter Chinese aggression over the long term.

The Trump administration deserves credit for standing up to China when Beijing creates an uneven playing field for global trade and investment, bullies Taiwan, or contributes to instability in the Asia Pacific region. Yet, it has fallen desperately short on mapping out next steps and in establishing a coherent vision. Frequent contradictions in President Trump’s policies produce confusion and uncertainty that undermine both U.S. business interests and diplomatic standing.

Moreover, the administration’s overwhelmingly “go it alone” approach on international issues fails to take advantage of the shared concerns of American allies around Beijing’s economic, security, and political practices. It is not too late for President Trump to broaden and lengthen the horizons with regard to his China policy. It is only a question of whether the administration can focus long enough to do so.

Elizabeth Economy, Ph.D., is a senior fellow and director of Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Her latest book, “The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and The New Chinese State,” was published this spring.