Trump is right: China isn’t helping us disarm N. Korea

The Chinese government and the anti-anti-Beijing commentariat in the U.S. are apoplectic over Donald Trump again — this time, because Trump questioned the sacrosanct one-China policy and China’s cooperation in disarming North Korea:

Trump’s latest foray into East Asian affairs came when he was asked by “Fox News Sunday” about the planning for the Dec. 2 call. He said he learned about the call “an hour or two” before it took place but said he understood the stakes.

“I fully understand the One China policy, but I don’t know why we have to be bound by a One China policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade,” he said.

“I mean, look,” he continued, “we’re being hurt very badly by China with devaluation; with taxing us heavy at the borders when we don’t tax them; with building a massive fortress in the middle of the South China Sea, which they shouldn’t be doing; and, frankly, with not helping us at all with North Korea.”

“I don’t want China dictating to me,” he said. [Washington Post, Emily Rauhala]

A point of order at the outset: the U.S. has never formally accepted China’s creed that there is no China but China and that Xi Jinping is its prophet, although China hands have exercised their proxy to submit to it on our behalf.

The criticism of Trump’s statement that’s hardest for me to take seriously concerns North Korea. For example, the White House has said that U.S. acceptance of “one China” is the price of Beijing’s cooperation on North Korea, to which I ask, “What cooperation?” Although it’s a mild overstatement that China isn’t helping us “at all,” Trump also understates the problem. For years, China’s North Korea policy has been a long and (mostly) unchecked series of flagrant violations of U.N. sanctions to prop up the regime in Pyongyang and negate the pressure the members of the Security Council had agreed to exert on it. If it can be said that China “cooperated” with those sanctions by voting for them in the Security Council, those votes were also Beijing’s inducements to prolong negotiations over each resolution’s provisions and water them down before inevitably violating them.

Similarly, concerns that China could ignore North Korea sanctions if Trump plays the “Taiwan card” ring hollow. Beijing isn’t going to enforce North Korea sanctions voluntarily, but we might achieve that effect if its banks and trading companies are penalized for their dealings with Pyongyang. That will undoubtedly do short-term harm to U.S.-China relations, but given the escalating nuclear crisis in Korea, that cost may be worth paying.

Some China hands have taken their alarmism to ridiculous extremes. James Fallows has even pointed to a threat to sever diplomatic relations by that modern-day Mencius, Shen Dingli — the same Shen Dingli who green-lighted North Korea’s first nuclear test and compared the four South Koreans killed in the Yeonpyeong bombardment to fish (Shen also predicted that Trump would be easy to handle). Fallows calls Shen “the opposite of a hothead,” but if that’s so, I’d hate to see what the hotheads are writing. I incline to the view that Shen is a hothead, a nationalist, and bluffing. For China to sever relations would be bad for both countries, but it would be much worse for China, which has a shaky, export-oriented economy and a rapidly aging population.

Both Trump and Shen are impulsive nationalists who appeal to constituencies of hot-heads, but they rise from different environments. In the U.S., most academics and politicians discourage confronting China’s nationalism and expansionism; China’s establishment indoctrinates its subjects with anti-American nationalism. Trump voters reflexively reject “the establishment.” In China, the establishment is known as “the Chinese Communist Party,” no one votes for it, and no one is free to reject it. The CCP plucks hotheads like Shen Dingli from obscurity and lifts them to high office and global prominence where they act as quasi-official mouthpieces for state policy. Shen is no moderate by our standards, but he isn’t an outlier by China’s:

A Monday editorial in the Global Times, a state-controlled newspaper known for its strident nationalism, suggested Trump ought to read some books on U.S.-China ties. It also warned that if the United States abandoned the One China policy, Beijing would have no reason to “put peace above using force to take back Taiwan.” [WaPo]

As far as I know, Xi Jinping doesn’t tweet, but the Global Times doesn’t print editorials unless Xi Jinping’s censors approve them. It may be less staid and authoritative than the People’s Daily, but the Global Times is probably a better reflection of Xi’s nationalist views. Its threat of war validates that our deference to China has not bought more than an illusory and temporary peace. But keeping our commitments to Taiwan serves the U.S. interest in showing its reliability as an ally and deters war. Sidelining Taiwan is a formula for a slow strangulation of the best evidence that Chinese people are capable of self-government. And if the U.S. abandons Taiwan, from Taipei’s perspective, given its already advanced state of diplomatic isolation, it would make sense for it to acquire nuclear weapons.

“China needs to launch a resolute struggle with him,” the editorial said. “Only after he’s hit some obstacles and truly understands that China and the rest of the world are not to be bullied will he gain some perception. “Many people might be surprised at how the new U.S. leader is truly a ‘businessman’ through and through,” the paper said. “But in the field of diplomacy, he is as ignorant as a child.” [WaPo]

For Americans who find Trump’s statements to be emotionally satisfying, and for Chinese who find Global Times editorials to be emotionally satisfying, it’s wise to question the tactical utility of each side’s rhetoric. Taking these in inverse order, surely the editors of The Global Times have learned by now how well Donald Trump responds to criticism. Their editorials can make James Fallows call for his smelling salts, but other than that, the best possible outcome they can have is if Donald Trump never reads about them on Twitter.

The utility of Trump’s statements is more complex, because one could view those statements as corrections of the opposite extreme — the deferential policies of his predecessors. In accord with Trump’s statement, it has often seemed that China did, in fact, dictate to American presidents, who overlooked a series of actions by Beijing that damaged U.S. interests, disrupted the international order, violated international law, or were calculated to insult our leaders. Examples include China’s seizure of the South China Sea and its defiance of an international arbitration; its bullying of Taiwan, Vietnam, Japan, and the Philippines; its international abductions of Taiwanese and anti-“Western” show trials of dissidents; its hacking of OPM’s files; forcing President Obama to exit through the back door of Air Force One; and of course, its many violations of U.N. sanctions against North Korea.

Barack Obama indulged all of this without attaching serious consequences to any of it. And just as proponents of appeasing Pyongyang err by assuming that asking nicely is our only policy option and ruling out more coercive alternatives, proponents of appeasing China cannot see any policy options beyond asking nicely. What if asking nicely isn’t enough? It’s not an unreasonable question, given that the results of asking nicely speak for themselves. In any negotiation, unless you’re prepared to walk away and impose some penalty on an uncooperative adversary, you aren’t negotiating, you’re supplicating. The trick is to impose consequences without unduly escalating the problem.

Trump’s unpredictability frightens people near DuPont Circle and in Manhattan, which may eventually weaken him (though such predictions have had a poor track record so far). It won’t play well with many U.S. allies, who don’t want to be tied to an erratic ally, and who will need to be reassured that this is an act (and by all means, beseech the deity of your choice that it is). For that matter, it sometimes frightens me. But although Trump’s words sound impulsive and often are, in this case, they’re rooted in the coherent and well-thought-out views of those who are schooling him, whether you agree with those views or not. Support for closer relations with Taiwan extends to thoughtful, moderate conservatives who haven’t always supported Trump, but who reject the counsel of those who would have him indulge China’s arrogant expansionism. In recent years, China’s predations have only grown more extreme as American presidents have indulged them.

Unpredictability can also have tactical advantages for dealing with adversaries. Richard Nixon called his strategic unpredictability “the Madman Theory.” If Trump can take a methodical and minimally disciplined approach to what costs he’s willing to impose on China for its misconduct — and admittedly, that’s asking a lot — the result may be more U.S. leverage, more effective diplomacy, and a prevention of the very war that China hands are raising panic about. It’s not without its own risks, of course. In the end, this may be the strongest criticism of Trump on Taiwan:

“Trump’s call with President Tsai may signal a possible readjustment of the U.S. policy toward Taiwan and China respectively,” he said. “But from the perspective of the Taiwanese people,” he said, “the legitimate principle should be that Taiwan should not be used as something for trade between the great powers.” [WaPo]

Taiwan is not a card; it’s a country. It’s a vibrant democracy of 24 million people besieged by a repressive and illegitimate dictatorship whose legitimacy we nonetheless acknowledge for pragmatic reasons. Far be it from me to concede the importance of defanging Kim Jong-un, but if the price of protecting one ally is to sell the freedom and independence of another, that price is too high. The Taiwan-North Korea linkage can become a dangerous trap if taken too far. Our message to Beijing must be that while the U.S.-Taiwan relationship will not ebb below a certain minimal level, it might crest well above China’s present expectations if China continues to destabilize the region.

I’ll close with a qualified apologia for Trump, whose critics raise the concern that he may give Russia free reign to achieve its territorial ambitions forcefully. It would not excuse Russia or Trump to recall that the Clintons have had a series of foreign influence scandals of their own, including over their campaign contributions from donors linked to China. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, for whatever reasons, gave China license to achieve its territorial ambitions forcibly. Trump is now standing up to China on Taiwan and North Korea just as his critics expect him to stand up to Russia on Ukraine and the Baltic states. Give him credit for getting it at least half right for now, and hope he gets the other half right very soon. One can only hope that by 2020, our democracy will offer us better choices than picking the candidate whose patron dictator we fear the least.