A Bull in the China Shop

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The Department of Energy is going to prohibit its scientists from participating in programs sponsored by foreign countries suspected of trying to steal sensitive technology.    

Of course the obvious target of the policy is China; of course the policy is the correct one, and of course it should have been implemented long ago.  

President Trump has made countering China the top priority of America's national security establishment, and he has managed the powers of his office so that the organs of American government are, each in their own areas, operationalizing that priority.  In my judgment, it's been Trump's greatest foreign policy success, particularly in contrast to his predecessors.

By its second term, the George W. Bush administration should have realized that China was not evolving the way our government had hoped.   The failure to acknowledge that and prioritize a response was perhaps understandable, in light of the challenges America was facing at the time in the Iraq War.  Leaders always tend to focus on the wolf closest to the sled.  But whatever may be said in mitigation of President Bush, the authority was his to exercise, and he must bear the responsibility for the failures on his watch.

As for President Obama, his foreign policy was far better as regards China than any other country or region.  His pivot, or "rebalance," to Asia in 2011 was the right strategy at the right time, and it began to turn the ship of the American state in the necessary direction.  The rebalance failed to have much effect, however, for two reasons:

First, Obama and the Congress were decimating American military strength when they should have been rebuilding it.  It is impossible to overstate the effect of this on the perceptions of the Chinese (and for that matter the Russians).  Authoritarians measure power and purpose primarily in military terms, at least in the first instance.  Their takeaway from America's defense cuts was that the United States was weak and in decline -- the worst possible impression to convey.   

Second, even apart from the military factor, Obama never brought America's economic power fully to bear.   His diplomacy produced some victories, but he was not bold enough in using the economic tools at his command. 

Needless to say, boldness is not a problem for Donald Trump.  The fact that Trump enjoys being a bull in the China shop has served him well.  Trump was willing to do what, in all likelihood, no other president of either party would have done:  shake the global trading establishment out of its stupor, apply fully the existing tools of economic power, and get his administration to be innovative in creating other tools.  That's an enormous achievement in two years.

To be sure, the ride has been and will continue to be bumpy, but that was inevitable, given that never before has the world faced a huge economy run by a regime that is actively trying to subvert the world trading system.   Trump is going where nobody has ever gone before because he is facing a challenge no one ever faced before.

Yet it’s worth repeating that Obama at least saw and articulated the challenge.  His country owes a debt to him for that.  The groundwork laid by the Obama administration in Asia has made it much easier for Trump to do what he has done.  There was and is a basis for bipartisanship in America's China policy.

Unfortunately, President Trump has not been as successful to this point in rebuilding the armed forces.  The progress has been much slower there because, while intention is easy to change, capability is not.

When Trump assumed office, America had the ability to compete effectively with China in the economic domain. Trump just needed to energize and organize it, which was difficult but doable.  The brutal fact is that the United States doesn't currently have an industrial base capable of producing ships, planes, aircraft, artillery, tanks, missiles, and missile defense -- not all at the same time in the numbers we need. 

That too, it must be said, is the result of failures Trump inherited.  The question now is whether the current administration can manage to hold the line in Asia, while preserving the peace, until the plan to rebuild America's defenses begins to bear real fruit.   There are times of testing ahead, but at least America is heading in the right direction.

Jim Talent is a former a senator from Missouri, former member of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, and has been a commissioner on the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission for the last five years. The views expressed here are his own.



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