For the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, most Western commentators on U.S.-Chinese relations saw the Trump administration’s approach to China as a strategic failure; some even concluded that Chinese President Xi Jinping had duped Trump. Recently, however, a different narrative has emerged in Western media. According to this view, Trump’s pressure on China is working, and Chinese leaders are worried. Trump’s 25 percent tariffs on $50 billion of Chinese imports are hurting the Chinese economy at a time when China is overleveraged and growth is slowing down, advocates of this view assert. Meanwhile, they say, Trump’s July meeting with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was a brilliant tactical feint: by negotiating a “cease-fire agreement” over trade with the EU, Trump united the West against China. In September, Trump showed his resolve by imposing tariffs on an additional $200 billion worth of Chinese imports. At the same time, according to some reports, dissent over Xi’s one-man control of Chinese strategy is growing within China, and Chinese leaders are looking for ways to mollify Trump.
Yet this narrative is almost the exact opposite of the truth. The fact is that, despite escalating trade tensions, Beijing should still see Trump as the ideal U.S. president for China. Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, his tough approach to trade with Japan, and his talk of removing U.S. troops from South Korea all served China’s interests by accelerating the decline of U.S. influence in Asia, opening space for China to expand its influence even faster than it had ever thought possible.China could hardly hope for a more cooperative occupant of the White House. There’s also good reason to think that China remains confident in its ability to manage Trump. Based on conversations I have had with a person close to the Chinese leadership, Beijing does still see Trump as a much better U.S. president for China’s interests than the alternatives.
WINNING THE TRADE WAR