Entry 57: Trump Stumbles on China Policy

March 2, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the 57th installment in Van Jackson’s daily writing journal, “Nuke Your Darlings,” which tracks his six-month battle to write a new book on North Korea. Will he meet his deadline?

The Trump administration is so dysfunctional!  Yes, they’re scandal-ridden.  Yes, they have more personnel turnover than the burger joint where I worked in high school.  And yes, they exhibit authoritarian tendencies.

I don’t want to trivialize all of that, but what I mean is that they still have a totally erratic foreign policy and are unable to do basic shit like take notes and coordinate messages.

What’s the Trump policy on China, one of the most important issues of our time?  According to the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy, it’s strategic competition.  According to Trump’s twitter feed, it’s let’s-make-a-deal on North Korea; classical issue linkage foreign policy, but of a variety that involves linking issues that don’t have any business intermingling.  And according to Trump on the stump, it’s mercantilism on behalf of a nativist instinct that his core supporters cheer.  Yet, in terms of U.S. government actions toward China, very little has actually changed since the Obama administration.  Until now.

The White House confirmed today that the United States would be imposing 25 percent tariffs on China for steel dumping and 10 percent tariffs for aluminum.  I’m pretty sure targeted tariffs will not lead to World War III (knock on wood), even if China does retaliate.  But it is stupid for some basic reasons that Steve Saideman pithily summarized.  It’s also most likely to hurt people in parts of the country that voted for Trump when China reciprocates by doing the same to U.S. agricultural exports.

Aside from being yet another self-inflicted wound though, what gets me about the tariffs is that it has nothing—nothing—to do with strategic competition or China’s challenge to what’s left of the rules-based liberal international order.  It doesn’t inhibit Chinese expansionism across the Asia-Pacific, it doesn’t affect the military balance in Asia, and it doesn’t help America keep its technological edge.

These tariffs are for the nativists in U.S. politics and nobody else.  It’s not populist if the majority of people don’t want it and the majority of people aren’t helped by it.  At best it’s misguided.  Worse, it does nothing—nothing—to advance U.S. foreign policy interests.  And you could say that he’s a nativist so what else would you expect, except this is literally the first move Trump’s made on China that satisfied the nativists.  13 months of China policy and this is the first time Trump has appeased his nativist base on China.

Yes, I’m supposed to be writing about North Korea.  I did manage close to 800 words today, and I’m almost through with the Obama years.  Just gotta write another page or two on the Hillary Clinton counterfactual presidency based on some of my interview data.

What I’ve discovered as I stacked ammo on Trump-era North Korea policy these past months is that the valence of its policy has been uniquely consistent—confrontational, negative.  But the implementation of policy has been a disaster—contradictory assessments of Kim Jong Un’s rationality, inconsistent public positions about what maximum pressure is and is not, contradictory statements about willingness to engage in dialogue with Pyongyang, and at least the appearance of failure to maintain solidarity with ally South Korea on what to do about the North.

The Trump administration has no foreign policy.  It has foreign policy instincts that are all over the map—the product of whimsy, emotion, and conflicting political interest groups, all executed by a massive, highly competent bureaucracy.


Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks and an associate editor of the Texas National Security Review. He is also a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington, and the Defence & Strategy Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies.