How the Trump administration overplayed its hand with China

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By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

The US appears to have badly overplayed its hand in its struggle with China. The fact that China was “rising” was largely known for decades and US policymakers only recently began to take this seriously. It began with hints in defense and other areas, as the FBI has warned about, such as cyberattacks or cyber-espionage or taking trade secrets and copyrights.

But that was dismissed as “not our problem,” because even if China built its own version of the F-35, the mocking tone was that it was a Chinese “substandard version.” However the larger issues of trade imbalances and debt were not widely understood. There were questions about working with China or seeing it as something to be competed with but which could be “kept in line” even as China “bided its time.”

The Trump administration accelerated the issue by seeking a trade war and now trying to pressure China in other ways over human rights.

But what the White House did was overplay its hand, because China quietly moved into international organizations like the WHO and into the global south, in areas in Africa, as well as working with Europe, quietly noting that the US was declining.

The current US administration didn’t try to build up an alliance of countries, because it mocks multi-lateralism and international institutions, in that it surrendered the field, because international institutions can be tools, even if you don’t believe in their ideals, so the US surrendered the field first and then began to seek to confront China. Now the US relies on things like a “show of force” of a few aircraft carriers, but China already moved into the disputed islands in the South China Sea, building bases and increasing rapidly its deployment and technology. China is behaving the way the US did between 1890 and 1940, a kind of colossus in the cradle, and the US policymakers only saw that too late with the new national defense strategy.

It may be that the US can pressure some countries, such as the “five eyes” Anglo states, but much of the rest of the world openly wants to challenge US hegemony for a multi-polar world and want to look to China. The White House miscalculated that, and its tendency toward isolationism means it wants to struggle with China while doing global retreat. It’s hard to do that.

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