Trump Has 'Promise Fatigue' From Dealing With China

Trump Has 'Promise Fatigue' From Dealing With China
AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Trump Has 'Promise Fatigue' From Dealing With China
AP Photo/Evan Vucci
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President Trump’s abrupt decision to increase tariffs to 25 percent on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods has upended the on-going trade talks between Washington and Beijing. While the Chinese both scrambled to send high-level negotiators to try and salvage negotiations and also levied reciprocal tariffs on $60 billion worth of U.S. goods, it was Beijing’s reported decision to renege on most of its trade concessions that prompted Trump’s turn-around. Far from rushing into a bad deal, the president is suffering from “promise fatigue” in dealing with the Chinese. This is an experience he shares with much of the American political establishment. Exasperation and incredulity are the new emotions shaping U.S. policy towards China.

“Promise fatigue” is a term used recently by Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan, but is a condition widely shared by many in Washington and beyond. No longer do U.S. policymakers believe Beijing’s protestations of good faith, of asserting that it will stop taking advantage of the U.S. in trade, that it will honor intellectual property rights, and that it will uphold freedom of navigation in critical waterways. Years of broken promises and a doubling down on exploitative behavior has worn thin Beijing’s welcome in Washington. 

Instead of frothy talk about a strategic partnership, the Trump administration has labeled the relationship with China one of strategic rivalry. Although Trump continues to tout his close personal relationship with President Xi Jinping, his administration has upended four decades of Sino-U.S. relations. In addition to slapping tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars of Chinese goods, Trump has moved to block Huawei from America’s 5G network, arrested Chinese intelligence agents, and increased U.S. Navy activity in waters claimed by China. 

Trump isn’t the only one suffering from Chinese “promise fatigue.” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is cheering on the administration’s hard-line trade stance, and several congressional committees have issued reports on the dangers of China’s technology theft and the role Beijing-funded Confucius Institutes have played in curtailing critical opinions of China on American college campuses. Last December, Congress passed the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act, appropriating $1.5 billion a year for enhanced U.S. activity throughout the Indo-Pacific region. American scholars long committed to engagement with China have also come to the conclusion that U.S. policy needs a course correction. 

Beijing has only itself to blame for America’s frustration . China’s leaders are learning that credibility is difficult to rebuild once squandered. After all, Xi promised President Obama that China would not militarize the islands it built in that strategically vital South China Sea, and then promptly did so. China’s president also committed himself to ending cybertheft against American companies and individuals, but such digital aggression continues unabated, as does its theft of intellectual property. Beijing has repeatedly said that it will curtail exports of fentanyl to the United States, which have   made America’s opioid epidemic exponentially more lethal, yet little has been done.

Not everyone is fed up with China, however. Despite widespread concerns about the transfer of high-end research results by some of the thousands of Chinese studying in the United States, American universities continue to enroll hundreds of thousands of these students every year. Silicon Valley similarly seems to see China as a partner or potential market, regardless of years of underperformance and regulatory and legal hurdles thrown up by the government. Hollywood continues to avoid almost any negative images of China, and perhaps most importantly, Wall Street has long been China’s most powerful champion in the corridors of power.

Yet all these actors increasingly are finding themselves on the wrong side of the zeitgeist. Leading the shift in attitude toward China is the man in the Oval Office. After a brief honeymoon with China, the president moved to implement his campaign promises to get tough. Although Hillary Clinton also assured voters that she would treat Beijing more assertively, it is Donald Trump who has fused together Democrats’ concerns about unfair trade with Republicans’ worries of China’s security threat, crafting a new policy with unlikely bedfellows. Moreover, Trump has stuck with his hard line despite Wall Street wobbles and predictions that his approach could cause outright conflict between Beijing and Washington. 

It is China’s long-term behavior, though, that has given Mr. Trump the running room to push back. Years of promises have proven hollow, and its newfound national strength is now seen by Americans and others around the world as threatening. Even as countries like Greece and Italy sign on to Xi’s One Belt One Road plan, others, like Poland and Canada, have rallied against Huawei and China’s bullying behavior. 

In the end, Beijing believed it could forever make promises and not deliver. The fatigue engendered by China’s bad faith will not soon dissipate. Instead, America and a good slice of the world are undertaking a fundamental reevaluation of their relations with China. If they now demand that Beijing uphold global norms and cease taking advantage of other nations, start protecting instead of undermining international law, and promote regional stability, then they will present China with a stark choice. Beijing’s answer will determine the course of global politics over the next generation.

Michael Auslin is a fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author of “The End of the Asian Century.”

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