Trump's rhetoric against Beijing sharpens

BRIDGEWATER (New Jersey) • After 18 months of treating North Korea as the top national security threat, United States President Donald Trump has increasingly turned his attention to China, taking a more confrontational approach that experts said shows a risky shift in US policy.

From an escalating trade war to a new defence budget that counters Chinese maritime expansion, the Trump administration has taken aim at the East Asian power in a contest of wills that has led to a growing consensus in Beijing that the US is seeking to contain China's rise.

Last week, Mr Trump cited the Chinese military as the rationale for creating a new "space force" at the Pentagon. In a tweet on Saturday, he injected China into the spectre of foreign influence on US elections. "All of the fools that are so focused on looking only at Russia should start also looking in another direction, China," the President wrote, without offering evidence of any Chinese conspiracy.

And, at a Cabinet meeting last Thursday, the President accused China of easing economic pressure on North Korea and of flooding addictive opioids into the US.

Mr Trump's rhetoric has grown sharper since last year, when he attempted to strike a rapport with his "good friend" President Xi Jinping of China.

Analysts said the rise in hostility suggests that Mr Trump and his advisers have come to view the communist nation as a malign power and direct competitor and adversary whose expanding influence must be blunted through more extreme countermeasures. To a degree, it is a view that is shared more widely among Washington foreign policy analysts as Mr Xi has consolidated power and pursued an aggressive agenda of economic growth and territorial expansion.

But analysts said the Trump administration has yet to articulate a clear strategy to deal with China even as it signals a sharp departure from the approach of previous administrations. Former president Barack Obama had sought to cooperate with Beijing on major global initiatives, such as the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal, as a way to manage China's growth and encourage it to act more responsibly in the international system.

Analysts said the rise in hostility suggests that Mr Trump and his advisers have come to view the communist nation as a malign power and direct competitor and adversary whose expanding influence must be blunted through more extreme countermeasures.

Mr Trump has pulled the US out of both of those pacts.

"I do not see very many issues this administration is trying to work with China on," said Ms Bonnie Glaser, a China analyst at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "I think this administration is in agreement that China is a competitor, and the effort here is really focused on how we have a more effective competitive strategy with China."

Economic analysts have criticised Mr Trump for sparking a trade war with China by slapping tariffs on steel and aluminium in the spring. In Thursday's meeting, the President appeared eager to prove he was right to impose tariffs and to paint Beijing as the loser, pointedly asking his top economic adviser, Mr Larry Kudlow, to update him on China's economic growth. "Their economy is heading south," Mr Kudlow replied. "I will just say, right now, their economy looks terrible."

Mr Trump had talked tough on China throughout his campaign, but he pulled back after taking office and inviting Mr Xi to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida last year. The President declined to follow through on threats to label China a "currency manipulator" as he sought to enlist Beijing's help in his international pressure campaign on North Korea.

But the President has soured on Beijing as his bid to force Pyongyang to live up to commitments made with leader Kim Jong Un has faltered. As Mr Trump's relationship with Mr Kim has appeared to enter an uneasy detente, analysts suggested the President sees China as a convenient political foil to juice his domestic political base.

There is doubt about whether the strategy is working.

Since the spring, the world's two largest economies have each put tariffs on US$34 billion (S$47 billion) worth of goods, with US$16 billion more slated to take effect this week. The trade war has sparked anxiety among some US industries and, in June, forced the Trump administration to announce plans for a US$12 billion bailout to farmers affected by retaliatory Chinese tariffs.

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 20, 2018, with the headline 'Trump's rhetoric against Beijing sharpens'. Print Edition | Subscribe