China escaped the trade trap — now Trump should deploy the truth trap

China escaped the trade trap — now Trump should deploy the truth trap
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Donald Trump campaigned on a promise to end the China trade relationship that severely disadvantaged American businesses, workers and taxpayers. Once elected, he set about fulfilling that pledge with a combination of punishing economic sanctions on China, coupled with  unstinting personal praise for Xi Jinping.  

After two years of arduous negotiations, he succeeded in securing a landmark agreement that committed China to purchase a record amount of goods from American farmers and producers.  But the deal fell far short of achieving the structural reform of China’s economy that inevitably would have far-reaching political ramifications.  

Those further reforms were on the Trump administration’s agenda for Phase 2 of the trade talks, which would have carried into a presumed second Trump term. If accomplished, Communist China would be much further along the road to becoming a normal nation. That was Richard Nixon’s vision in 1972 when he “opened China to the world and opened the world to China” and said, “China must change.”


But, as that effort was clearly faltering, Nixon worried that “we may have created a monster.” So the West tried again, 30 years later, by admitting China to the World Trade Organization and dropping human rights progress as a necessary precondition. Those concessions and further opening to China again failed to bring meaningful change or ameliorate the communist regime’s hostility toward the West.

Now, after yet another 20 years, a much more powerful and aggressive China threatens the world on many different levels. Trump was determined, against all odds, to disrupt that dynamic. With the consummation of the first part of the trade deal, he believed China finally was starting down the path of structural economic reform, and that more than $200 billion of revenue from China soon would be coming to American farmers and manufacturers. 

Then, almost miraculously for Beijing, the pandemic suddenly intervened. Under conditions of a health emergency and severe economic downturn, all bets were off — not only for China’s promised purchases, but also for the prospect of economic reform. A Trump reelection no longer seemed assured, and a Biden administration likely would be more conventional, predictable and, from Beijing's perspective, manageable.  

This shocking turn of events stirred speculation that China intentionally spread the virus to the West, even if the original infection was a natural Wuhan animal-to-human transmission or a Wuhan laboratory accident. China’s Ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai dismissed both the lab theory and China’s charge that American soldiers brought it to China as “crazy talk,” but he should be asked the question: cui bono (who benefits)?

For the past several months, President TrumpDonald John TrumpPennsylvania Supreme Court strikes down GOP bid to stop election certification Biden looks to career officials to restore trust, morale in government agencies Sunday shows preview: US health officials brace for post-holiday COVID-19 surge MORE and his administration had been touting the great victory over China in the trade war.  


Xi Jinping and his allies were treated to almost daily presidential tweets and press briefings boasting of the surging U.S. economy and soaring stock market, and almost taunting China over its contrasting economic problems. Even Vice President Pence got into the act during his sweeping indictment of the Chinese Communist system at the Wilson Center last October. In addition to lambasting China’s malign behavior around the world, Pence stated: “Because of the president’s policies, America has added trillions of dollars of wealth to our economy while China’s economy continues to fall behind.”

The pandemic spread quite efficiently from China to Europe and the United States, dramatically changing the narrative. It has caused nearly 100,000 American deaths and devastated the U.S. economy and jobs market to a degree not seen since the Great Depression.

Chinese media have made no secret of their satisfaction at the reversal of U.S. fortunes — suffering, death and humiliation in place of triumphalism. The virus has weakened even the U.S. military to the point that Chinese hardliners are advocating an attack on Taiwan. With some taunting of its own, China has been exercising its first operational aircraft carrier increasingly close to Taiwan. Unofficial Chinese blogs claim, without foundation, that in addition to the USS Theodore Roosevelt, three other U.S. carriers are out of commission because of the virus.  

Amid calls for an imminent move on Taiwan while the U.S. is distracted and economically and militarily weakened, government sources have invoked the Qing dynasty’s 17th century conquests as a model for the patient but inevitable absorption of Taiwan. They offer it as historical rebuttal to the May 4 speech by deputy U.S. national security adviser Matt Pottinger, which, delivered in fluent Mandarin, cited the 1912 student uprisings and was well-received by many young Chinese.

Washington should remind Beijing of a more recent piece of history: the strategic miscalculation North Korea and China made when they invaded South Korea under the assumption the United States would not intervene. That misimpression was encouraged by official American statements suggesting that Korea and Taiwan were outside the U.S. security perimeter.  

U.S. declaratory policy on Taiwan is more ambiguous. Beyond the commitment under the Taiwan Relations Act to provide it with defensive weapons, U.S. statements merely leave open the possibility that Washington would directly intervene in Taiwan’s defense. Many Chinese officials believe it would not, and there are Americans who say it should not. After having misled the world on the virus, it would be wise if Beijing were left with no doubt of American intentions to defend Taiwan.

At the same time, having seen Trump’s trade leverage over China dissipated by the pandemic, his administration should step up its information campaign against the world’s most dangerous regime. As Pottinger’s speech showed, the messaging would find a welcoming audience among the Chinese people and give China’s government more to think about than undertaking military adventures.

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute.