Trump and U.S. policy towards China

By Jerome A. Cohen

Trump’s remarks on having “second thoughts” about the U.S.-China trade war remind me of the old saw: “How do I know what I think til I hear what I say?” Of course, it is easy to joke aboutthis literally incredible person.

Yet we all know what disasters he is inflicting and are frightened at the significant possibility that he might be re-elected. I thought the American people would repudiate George W. Bush after his first four years and was stunned by Trump’s election. Similar leadership problems exist in other major countries. Politics is too serious to be left to national leaders anywhere.

But we need to spend more time analyzing Trump’s thoughts, such as they are. Are they rooted in his experiences? His canny plotting for financial gain? His fear of criminal prosecution? His desire to leave a lasting mark on world politics? His many prejudices? His lack of relevant knowledge? His social life? His insatiable narcissism? His inability to tolerate many advisors? Is he declining further mentally?

It’s this last question that troubles an increasing number of jaded American observers. If Trump is reelected, what steps might be taken to guard against a second term’s further decline? Reagan had some able advisors. We would not want the group currently around Trump to be acting in his name, even if they could agree on a China policy for one day, if not the next.

More important than Trump or any single leader is whether the US is being mobilized to counter China in every way, to what extent and with what likely consequences. Xi Jinping undoubtedly realizes the situation. I wish he would respond by removing some of the obvious causes of our concerns instead of expanding the charges in our indictment. One way or the other I’m sure he is preparing for the worst, as the US Government is gradually doing, which, of course, may increase the prospects for unhappy outcomes. Trump is only the most immediate potential spark in what would be more than a prairie fire.

Of course, it is possible that we can find international stability by reverting to the Cold War pattern of “Two scorpions in a bottle”, but that was always an unpleasant and uncertain way to live. 

Donald Trump's telephone call with Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen

China plainly cannot be happy with this direct telephone contact between Taiwan’s President Tsai and President-elect Trump. Of course, Trump is not yet president, so the contact can be regarded as unofficial. Yet it suggests the possibility that the Trump administration may to some extent alter the long-standing policy of the U.S. Government of not maintaining official contact with the Taiwan government.

Photo credit: Reuters, ABC News

Photo credit: Reuters, ABC News

Pressures have been building during the Obama era to abandon the strict US policy of not permitting the president and vice president of Taiwan to do more than transit the U.S. Indeed, I have advocated allowing them free access to every place in America except Washington, D.C., especially since the current rule restricts my freedoms of speech, information and association unnecessarily and undesirably. A similar rule has prevented the highest American officials from visiting Taiwan, again an inappropriate restriction, especially when the security of Taiwan will soon become a major issue in Sino-American relations once again.

Of course, administrations often change course in light of events. In April 2001 I recall watching George W. Bush, as part of what appeared to be a pugnacious stance toward China, declare on TV at the outset of his administration that he would do ”whatever it takes” to defend Taiwan. Once 9/11 occurred, his administration moved much closer to the People’s Republic and began to avoid provocative statements.