Few would think of Donald Trump’s foreign policy as Nixonian or Reaganesque, but it sounds like the president is playing their sheet music. In 1972, Nixon went to China to engineer the Sino-Soviet split, fracturing communist unity in classic divide-and-conquer diplomacy. In the 1980s, Reagan launched an arms race that the Soviet Union could not afford, leading to Soviet collapse and U.S. victory in the Cold War.
Trump’s bromance with Russian President Vladimir Putin, so inexplicable to almost everyone, has the effect, intended or not, of keeping Putin from aligning with China. Reportedly, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has recommended this general approach in meetings with the president. On the East Asia front, the president is starting a trade war that trade-dependent China cannot afford.
This strategy deserves Americans’ and allies’ genuine consideration, if not support. The nation and the world benefit when democratic and pluralistic America erodes the power and influence of totalitarian dictatorships.
If we were to increase sanctions on, and isolation of, Russia for its election meddling, as many seem to advocate, it likely would be counter-productive. On the heels of the sanctions imposed on Russia for its annexation of Crimea, Putin traveled to Beijing to build relations with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
Yes, make clear that any continued meddling will be met with strong measures, but it would serve U.S. national interest more to convince Putin to exit the Iran nuclear deal (which only delays Iranian development of strategic nuclear arms). What American wouldn’t trade at least tacit U.S. acceptance of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in exchange for Russian cooperation in permanent denuclearization of Iran? Putin is not going to return Crimea, which has only briefly been a part of Ukraine after Soviet leadership shifted it from Russia to Ukraine in 1954 when all three entities were part of the same nation. Why not exploit a fait accompli as a diplomatic carrot?
Then, there’s the stick. Trump is bumping military spending and pressuring NATO to do the same, which surely echoes Reagan’s buildup and raises the ante and the risks for Putin. Whether or not Reagan envisioned or intended a Soviet collapse, that was the result — and that result was achieved by imposing unbearable cost on our adversary.
That is exactly what Trump is doing in his trade war with China. Fervent free-traders repeat endlessly that everyone loses in a trade war, conveniently overlooking the critical point that, in this case, the losses are asymmetrical. The United States can bear the losses much more easily than China. We export only $130 billion to China and import over $500 billion. With reciprocal 25 percent tariffs (reportedly the level the administration is contemplating), the United States enjoys roughly a $90 billion advantage in the looming trade battle. This explains why Trump has said we can win a trade war.
While we enjoy this overwhelming advantage, key questions remain: What are the objectives, and what are the estimated costs? Here, reasonable people can disagree. At the least, most people believe that we can force China to abandon is unfair trade practices at reasonable cost to us. Some would say stop there. Trump, however, has shown a willingness to use leverage across policy dimensions; his likely further objective is to use trade pressure to push China into forcing the denuclearization of North Korea. Many would say stop there, rejoicing at largely unexpected success.
There are those who would go further, saying that now is the time to confront China and halt its emergence as the dominant world power. The issue revolves around two questions: What kind of China is emerging, and what is the best time for confrontation? First, China is a totalitarian communist dictatorship, whose leader has just assumed power for life. In very recent modern history, this brief description alone would have been enough to justify all means of confrontation. Is today so different?
Perhaps it is incumbent upon those who see a peaceful giant emerging to justify their case — explain why China has tolerated the emergence of a nuclear-armed North Korea, has militarized the South China Sea and, as recently reported, has installed in Argentina a space tracking station, with both military and peaceful capabilities.
On the question of timing, there’s a popular saying about China: “It is in a race to get rich before it gets old.” Although recently abandoned, China’s one-child policy is leading inexorably to disproportionate and burdensome aging, only somewhat exaggerated by the colloquialism that China has a “4-2-1 problem,” namely, four grandparents and two parents for each Chinese worker to support.
Nevertheless, China is speeding along. Its economy is the world’s largest as measured by purchasing power — almost $22 trillion versus about $18 trillion for the United States, according to the World Bank. It is growing twice as fast as the United States, suggesting Chinese victory in its “race.”
Is it in U.S. national interest for China to win this “race” and surpass U.S. economic might, and amass unparalleled economic and military power sufficient not only to fund its coming retirement bulge but to pursue vast global ambitions? If not, now is the time to stop, or at least slow, the Asian giant.
Successful execution of the grand designs posited here is anything but assured, if indeed they are the Trump administration’s game plan. But the strategy merits Americans’ support. Just contemplate a world without nuclear-armed regimes in North Korea and Iran — and one still dominated by a pluralistic democracy.
As appeared in The Hill on Aug. 3, 2018.
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Red Jahncke is a nationally recognized columnist, who writes about politics and policy. His columns appear in numerous national publications, such as The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, USA Today, The Hill, Issues & Insights and National Review as well as many Connecticut newspapers.