At a recent dinner for a group of high-ranking military officers at an undisclosed location in the bucolic American countryside, I cautioned the generals to prepare for the president to make a deal with China on trade. Many nodded but were skeptical. Why would the president unilaterally end a trade war that has been so successful against a country that he, and many of his most ardent supporters, believe is America’s number one geopolitical rival?
I explained that the president is a transactional leader who favors short-term solutions over longer-term strategic considerations. This in itself is not bad. In fact, it was one of the reasons not only why I voted for the Trump in 2016 (and will vote for him again in 2020) but also why I so loudly defended this president to fellow Republicans who despised him. Yet foreign and trade policy is not a one-size-fits-all solution. And, with China, if the United States cedes an inch of ground on trade, China’s leaders will turn that inch into a mile — ensuring that Beijing will yet again keep pace with (and possibly ultimately defeat) America in the great strategic competition between Beijing and Washington.
It now appears that such a trade deal with China is at hand. I am, unfortunately, reminded of Winston Churchill’s famous quote that you “cannot make a deal with a tiger when your head is in its mouth.” For years, America’s head has been in China’s mouth. All we can do is resist China’s bite. The president, however, appears poised to surrender to China.
Short-Termism Rears Its Ugly Head Again
The problem is that the president’s need for short-term deals will not have the intended effect on the long-term Sino-American strategic competition. Rather than ameliorating the rising tide of hostility between the two economic and military juggernauts, a deal, such as the tentative one that the Trump administration is crafting with Beijing, will weaken the United States in the long term and will allow for Beijing to continue its long march to world preeminence.
After all, Trump’s tariffs and overall pressure campaign against China has been working. We can see how it has fundamentally weakened China’s economy (and therefore its autarkic political system). Whether speaking about the obvious Hong Kong protests that threaten to fundamentally destabilize China’s tenuous political system or the severe crackdown on Muslim Uighurs and Evangelical Christian populations, Beijing is worried about American-induced political disharmony. The disharmony is being exacerbated by the trade war.
Meanwhile, China’s economy continues its rapid slowdown. Some of this is simply because China is transitioning from an old world-type manufacturing economy with a high-savings rate into a post-industrial, consumption economy with a higher debt load. But Trump’s trade war is intensifying the decline — and putting the proverbial squeeze on those communist leaders in Beijing, who have spent decades in an unremitting economic war against the United States.
The proposed trade talks are set to create a multi-phase trade deal that will not only settle the matter of the agriculture trade issues but also will address the issue of technology transfers from the West to China and Beijing’s ongoing effort to pilfer intellectual property from the West. Of course, the first phase of this deal redounds to agriculture. And this is the tell-tale sign that the potential deal is first and foremost political. President Trump has weakened himself politically with his tough trade stance on China. By targeting agricultural products, Trump has put a core contingent of his eclectic voting base — American farmers — in financial peril. Also, the ongoing trade war risks undermining the stock market (which the president continues to use as the most reliable measuring stick for the efficacy of his economic policies).
Ending the trade war in this way, then, likely ensures that the president will win reelection. Good for him (and for America — at least for now). Trump is certainly not the first president to use an international deal, whether on trade or diplomacy, as a means of boosting his reelection chances. Yet the overall impact must be assessed beyond the short-term political or economic boost. For if the long-standing issues between China and the United States were truly defined by agricultural trade problems, then a coterie of American policy analysts, including this author, over the last several decades would not have tried sounding the alarm about Chinese strategic intentions. In fact, America is enduring much more than a mere trade war with China. Instead, we are experiencing a quasi-war that encompasses all aspects of civilization — and the United States, until Trump’s insightful trade war was initiated, was losing.
It’s All About High-Tech
Fact is, any deal reached with China will not be final. Even on an issue that the Chinese are willing to make a deal on — such as in the agricultural sector — Beijing will inevitably find ways to cheat, thereby harming American workers and the economy. What’s more, the biggest problems we face, technology transfer and intellectual property theft, are being pushed back in the negotiations to the second round. (How much does one wish to bet that there will be no second round once the initial deal about agricultural trade is made?)
It is in the arena of advanced technology that the future of the world will be decided. This was an area in which, until recently, the United States had an unquestioned advantage. Over the years, though, Beijing (and other countries) have worked assiduously to undermine this advantage. Quantum technology is being rapidly developed in China. Even American technology firms, such as Google, are excited about uprooting their existing operations in the United States and moving to China — where they will be forced to hand over highly sensitive trade secrets and to partner with Chinese state-owned enterprises, as well as to hire Chinese engineers — all so that Beijing can build up its indigenous capacity and eventually create competitors to U.S. tech firms like Google. China doesn’t want to “partner” with more advanced Western firms. They want access to those firms’ advanced technology and trade practices so China can steal them and then use them against the West.
But, this is all too long-term for America’s corporate leaders to consider. In the near term they, like President Trump, would benefit from a trade deal with China. So all other considerations must be ignored in favor of either the quarterly bottom line for corporations or the biennial and quadrennial election results for American politicians.
China doesn’t care about agriculture insofar as it can safely import such products from overseas. Beijing is concerned about better competing with the United States at the strategic level — and that can only be done with a sufficient level of indigenous high-tech capabilities. The trade war, though focused on manufacturing and agricultural sectors, also impacted the willingness of all Western firms to operate safely in China. Even the National Basketball Association was impacted. The prospect of a deal will only encourage Western firms to reengage with China in the same pernicious ways that they had previously done before President Trump heroically stood firm against Chinese perfidy.
No Deals, Mr. President!
I agree with David Goldman: the president likely secured his reelection with the move toward a trade deal. But without a long-term understanding — and plan — for resisting Chinese IP theft and illicit tech transfers to China — the United States will inevitably become just another middle power in an increasingly Chinese-dominated world. President Trump must insist that China cease its ongoing technology war upon the United States before any kind of deal is agreed to. He must also advocate for Congress to make technology transfers illegal under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). Then, the president should order America’s clandestine services to wage an unremitting cyber campaign against any Chinese entity that seeks to target, steal, or destroy American intellectual property.
President Trump: any short-term benefits that may be gleaned from negotiating with China on trade may equal a long-term strategic defeat for the United States in the ongoing struggle for supremacy between Beijing and Washington.
Until an American leader does comprehend this fact, American workers will continue to lose their livelihoods (thereby gutting the United States of once-vital middle-class communities), the American economy will lose billions of dollars to China, and the United States will become a subordinate power to China’s growing global power.
The United States is in the exact same spot that it was in 1947, when President Harry Truman was faced with the prospect of the growing Soviet threat. His initial inclination was to ignore the Soviet provocations for fear of having to wage another bloody world war. But Truman became convinced that, if he did not set the tone of resistance to the totalitarian threat the West faced, the Reds would sweep the world and not even the United States would be safe from the global revolution. Truman crafted the policies that became a bedrock for the great ideological struggle against Soviet communism.
Today, Trump must engage in a similar action to save the American republic from certain destruction in this new quasi-war with Red China. Time is not on America’s side, though. The president must act — swiftly and boldly — to stave off defeat.
Brandon J. Weichert can be reached via Twitter @WeTheBrandon.