President Trump's latest foray into the world of international economics – his ongoing trade war with China – has been widely derided by his critics. It's been derided on the grounds that there is no long-term strategy; on the grounds that the trade war will not be, as Trump has bragged, "good and easy to win"; on the grounds that Trump continues to send mixed signals, simultaneously claiming that China is bearing the brunt of his tariffs while desperately urging Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell to lower interest rates.
Now, Trump's trade policy may not be well-considered. His understanding of trade is rudimentary at best – he still operates under the assumption that mutually beneficial trade is actually a zero-sum game. And Trump's rhetoric may be confusing – it's unclear whether Trump wants tariffs or wants to alleviate them. But Trump does have one thing absolutely right: China is an imperturbable geopolitical foe. And the United States ought to be taking a serious look at a long-term strategy to contain and then reverse the dominance of the totalitarian communist regime.
Trump is the only president of recent vintage to understand this simple truth. The Chinese regime is strengthening its totalitarianism; market forces have not opened up China's politics. China's attempts to strengthen its grip on Hong Kong, its forays into the complexities of Indian-Pakistani politics, its threats of sanctions against American firms over the sale of jets to Taiwan – all of this bespeaks the intent of the Xi Jinping regime, which has a philosophy of political revanchism. The supposed moderation of Dengism – the political philosophy of Deng Xiaoping, which supposedly prized pragmatism over doctrinal adherence to Marxist tenets – is being quickly reversed, with China's economy placed at the mercy of political leadership. Dengism was always treated with too much optimism by the West: The same regime supposedly pushing for detente with the West stole hundreds of billions in intellectual property every year for years while continuing to build up its military. Still, Xi has moved away from even tepid moves toward openness.
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Two significant projects in recent years demonstrate the scale of China's ambitions. First, there's the so-called Belt and Road Initiative, in which China has helped subsidize building infrastructure in a bevy of countries throughout the world. Up to 68 countries are already taking part. The project is designed to place these countries in hock to the Chinese government; it's also designed to maximize China's naval power in the region.
Then there is China's heavy focus on government-subsidized building of 5G, using Huawei as the tip of the spear. China is offering 5G technology to developing countries at discounted prices, and those countries, hungry for the technology, have been accepting, likely at the cost of their own privacy and security. The goal, as always: maximization of China's sphere of influence.
Free trade isn't going to cure this. China's government has been willing to utilize mercantilism to prop up its global ambitions. Capitalism hasn't opened China's politics. Free trade has indeed benefited China's citizens, bringing hundreds of millions out of poverty, but the Chinese government has responded with more repression, not less. All of which means that the United States must be pursuing a thorough strategy of opposition to China's ambitions.
Trump seems to understand this. But if he fails to articulate that to the American people, his economic war with China will fail. That's because if the American people are asked to shoulder an economic burden without being informed as to the rationale or the cost, they will rightly buck. Trump hasn't explained that the burden exists, let alone why the American people should shoulder it.
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With that said, at least Trump recognizes the threat China represents. The chattering class has, for far too long, ignored that threat, to the detriment of the United States and her allies.