U.S. strategy toward the People’s Republic of China has rested for more than four decades on two basic propositions. The first is that the Chinese economy would be changed irreversibly by the rising prosperity caused by market-oriented policies, greater foreign investment, ever-deeper interconnections with global markets and broader acceptance of international economic norms. Bringing China into the World Trade Organization in 2001 was the apotheosis of this assessment.
The second proposition is that, as China’s national wealth increased, so too, inevitably, would its political openness. As China became more democratic, it would avoid competition for regional or global hegemony, and the risk of international conflict—hot or cold—would recede.
Both propositions were fundamentally incorrect. After joining the WTO, China did exactly the opposite of what was predicted. China gamed the organization, pursuing a mercantilist policy in a supposedly free-trade body. China stole intellectual property, forced technology transfers from foreign businesses and continued managing its economy in authoritarian ways.
Politically, China moved away from democracy, not toward it. In Xi Jinping, China now has its most powerful leader and its most centralized government since Mao Zedong. Ethnic and religious persecution on a massive scale continues. Meanwhile, China has created a formidable offensive cyberwarfare program, built a blue-water navy for the first time in 500 years, increased its arsenal of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, and more.
I saw these developments as a threat to U.S. strategic interests and to our friends and allies. The Obama administration basically sat back and watched it happen.
President Donald Trump in some respects embodies the growing U.S. concern about China. He appreciates the key truth that politico-military power rests on a strong economy. Trump frequently says that stopping China’s unfair economic growth at America’s expense is the best way to defeat China militarily, which is fundamentally correct.
But the real question is what Trump does about China’s threat. His advisers are badly fractured intellectually. The administration has “panda huggers” like Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin; confirmed free-traders like National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow; and China hawks like Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, lead trade negotiator Robert Lighthizer and White House trade adviser Peter Navarro.
After I became Trump’s national security adviser in April 2018, I had the most futile role of all: I wanted to fit China trade policy into a broader strategic framework. We had a good slogan, calling for a “free and open Indo-Pacific” region. But a bumper sticker is not a strategy, and we struggled to avoid being sucked into the black hole of U.S.-China trade issues.
Trade matters were handled from day one in a completely chaotic way. Trump’s favorite way to proceed was to get small armies of people together, either in the Oval Office or the Roosevelt Room, to argue out these complex, controversial issues. Over and over again, the same issues. Without resolution, or even worse, one outcome one day and a contrary outcome a few days later. The whole thing made my head hurt.
With the November 2018 midterm elections looming, there was little progress on the China trade front. Attention turned to the coming Buenos Aires G-20 summit the following month, when Xi and Trump could meet personally. Trump saw this as the meeting of his dreams, with the two big guys getting together, leaving the Europeans aside, cutting the big deal.
What could go wrong? Plenty, in Lighthizer’s view. He was very worried about how much Trump would give away once untethered.
In Buenos Aires on Dec. 1, at dinner, Xi began by telling Trump how wonderful he was, laying it on thick. Xi read steadily through note cards, doubtless all of it hashed out arduously in advance. Trump ad-libbed, with no one on the U.S. side knowing what he would say from one minute to the next.
One highlight came when Xi said he wanted to work with Trump for six more years, and Trump replied that people were saying that the two-term constitutional limit on presidents should be repealed for him. Xi said the U.S. had too many elections, because he didn’t want to switch away from Trump, who nodded approvingly.
Xi finally shifted to substance, describing China’s positions: The U.S. would roll back Trump’s existing tariffs, and both parties would refrain from competitive currency manipulation and agree not to engage in cyber thievery (how thoughtful). The U.S. should eliminate Trump’s tariffs, Xi said, or at least agree to forgo new ones. “People expect this,” said Xi, and I feared at that moment that Trump would simply say yes to everything Xi had laid out.
Trump came close, unilaterally offering that U.S. tariffs would remain at 10% rather than rise to 25%, as he had previously threatened. In exchange, Trump asked merely for some increases in Chinese farm-product purchases, to help with the crucial farm-state vote. If that could be agreed, all the U.S. tariffs would be reduced. It was breathtaking.
Trump asked Lighthizer if he had left anything out, and Lighthizer did what he could to get the conversation back onto the plane of reality, focusing on the structural issues and ripping apart the Chinese proposal. Trump closed by saying Lighthizer would be in charge of the deal-making, and Jared Kushner would also be involved, at which point all the Chinese perked up and smiled.
The decisive play came in May 2019, when the Chinese reneged on several key elements of the emerging agreement, including all the structural issues. For me, this was proof that China simply wasn’t serious.
Trump spoke with Xi by phone on June 18, just over a week ahead of the year’s G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, where they would next meet. Trump began by telling Xi he missed him and then said that the most popular thing he had ever been involved with was making a trade deal with China, which would be a big plus for him politically.
In their meeting in Osaka on June 29, Xi told Trump that the U.S.-China relationship was the most important in the world. He said that some (unnamed) American political figures were making erroneous judgments by calling for a new cold war with China.
Whether Xi meant to finger the Democrats or some of us sitting on the U.S. side of the table, I don’t know, but Trump immediately assumed that Xi meant the Democrats. Trump said approvingly that there was great hostility to China among the Democrats. Trump then, stunningly, turned the conversation to the coming U.S. presidential election, alluding to China’s economic capability and pleading with Xi to ensure he’d win. He stressed the importance of farmers and increased Chinese purchases of soybeans and wheat in the electoral outcome. I would print Trump’s exact words, but the government’s prepublication review process has decided otherwise.
Trump then raised the trade negotiations’ collapse the previous month, urging China to return to the positions it had retracted and conclude the most exciting, largest deal ever. He proposed that for the remaining $350 billion of trade imbalances (by Trump’s arithmetic), the U.S. would not impose tariffs, but he again returned to importuning Xi to buy as many American farm products as China could.
Xi agreed that we should restart the trade talks, welcoming Trump’s concession that there would be no new tariffs and agreeing that the two negotiating teams should resume discussions on farm products on a priority basis. “You’re the greatest Chinese leader in 300 years!” exulted Trump, amending that a few minutes later to “the greatest leader in Chinese history.”
Subsequent negotiations after I resigned did lead to an interim “deal” announced in December 2019, but there was less to it than met the eye.
Trump’s conversations with Xi reflected not only the incoherence in his trade policy but also the confluence in Trump’s mind of his own political interests and U.S. national interests. Trump commingled the personal and the national not just on trade questions but across the whole field of national security. I am hard-pressed to identify any significant Trump decision during my White House tenure that wasn’t driven by reelection calculations.
Take Trump’s handling of the threats posed by the Chinese telecommunications firms Huawei and ZTE. Ross and others repeatedly pushed to strictly enforce U.S. regulations and criminal laws against fraudulent conduct, including both firms’ flouting of U.S. sanctions against Iran and other rogue states. The most important goal for Chinese “companies” like Huawei and ZTE is to infiltrate telecommunications and information-technology systems, notably 5G, and subject them to Chinese control (though both companies, of course, dispute the U.S. characterization of their activities).
Trump, by contrast, saw this not as a policy issue to be resolved but as an opportunity to make personal gestures to Xi. In 2018, for example, he reversed penalties that Ross and the Commerce Department had imposed on ZTE. In 2019, he offered to reverse criminal prosecution against Huawei if it would help in the trade deal—which, of course, was primarily about getting Trump re-elected in 2020.
These and innumerable other similar conversations with Trump formed a pattern of fundamentally unacceptable behavior that eroded the very legitimacy of the presidency. Had Democratic impeachment advocates not been so obsessed with their Ukraine blitzkrieg in 2019, had they taken the time to inquire more systematically about Trump’s behavior across his entire foreign policy, the impeachment outcome might well have been different.
As the trade talks went on, Hong Kong’s dissatisfaction over China’s bullying had been growing. An extradition bill provided the spark, and by early June 2019, massive protests were under way in Hong Kong.
I first heard Trump react on June 12, upon hearing that some 1.5 million people had been at Sunday’s demonstrations. “That’s a big deal,” he said. But he immediately added, “I don’t want to get involved,” and, “We have human-rights problems too.”
I hoped Trump would see these Hong Kong developments as giving him leverage over China. I should have known better. That same month, on the 30th anniversary of China’s massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, Trump refused to issue a White House statement. “That was 15 years ago,” he said, inaccurately. “Who cares about it? I’m trying to make a deal. I don’t want anything.” And that was that.
Beijing’s repression of its Uighur citizens also proceeded apace. Trump asked me at the 2018 White House Christmas dinner why we were considering sanctioning China over its treatment of the Uighurs, a largely Muslim people who live primarily in China’s northwest Xinjiang Province.
At the opening dinner of the Osaka G-20 meeting in June 2019, with only interpreters present, Xi had explained to Trump why he was basically building concentration camps in Xinjiang. According to our interpreter, Trump said that Xi should go ahead with building the camps, which Trump thought was exactly the right thing to do. The National Security Council’s top Asia staffer, Matthew Pottinger, told me that Trump said something very similar during his November 2017 trip to China.
Trump was particularly dyspeptic about Taiwan, having listened to Wall Street financiers who had gotten rich off mainland China investments. One of Trump’s favorite comparisons was to point to the tip of one of his Sharpies and say, “This is Taiwan,” then point to the historic Resolute desk in the Oval Office and say, “This is China.” So much for American commitments and obligations to another democratic ally.
More thunder out of China came in 2020 with the coronavirus pandemic. China withheld, fabricated and distorted information about the disease; suppressed dissent from physicians and others; hindered efforts by the World Health Organization and others to get accurate information; and engaged in active disinformation campaigns, trying to argue that the new coronavirus did not originate in China.
There was plenty to criticize in Trump’s response, starting with the administration’s early, relentless assertion that the disease was “contained” and would have little or no economic effect. Trump’s reflex to try to talk his way out of anything, even a public-health crisis, only undercut his and the nation’s credibility, with his statements looking more like political damage control than responsible public-health advice.
Other criticisms of the administration, however, were frivolous. One such complaint targeted part of the general streamlining of NSC staffing I conducted in my first months at the White House. To reduce duplication and overlap and enhance coordination and efficiency, it made good management sense to shift the responsibilities of the NSC directorate dealing with global health and biodefense into the directorate dealing with biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. Bioweapon attacks and pandemics can have much in common, and the medical and public-health expertise required to deal with both threats goes hand in hand. Most of the personnel working in the prior global health directorate simply moved to the combined directorate and continued doing exactly what they were doing before.
At most, the internal NSC structure was the quiver of a butterfly’s wings in the tsunami of Trump’s chaos. Despite the indifference at the top of the White House, the cognizant NSC staffers did their duty in the pandemic, raising options like shutdowns and social distancing far before Trump did so in March. The NSC biosecurity team functioned exactly as it was supposed to. It was the chair behind the Resolute desk that was empty.
In today’s pre-2020 election climate, Trump has made a sharp turn to anti-China rhetoric. Frustrated in his search for the big China trade deal, and mortally afraid of the negative political effects of the coronavirus pandemic on his re-election prospects, Trump has now decided to blame China, with ample justification. Whether his actions will match his words remains to be seen. His administration has signaled that Beijing’s suppression of dissent in Hong Kong will have consequences, but no actual consequences have yet been imposed.
Most important of all, will Trump’s current China pose last beyond election day? The Trump presidency is not grounded in philosophy, grand strategy or policy. It is grounded in Trump. That is something to think about for those, especially China realists, who believe they know what he will do in a second term.
—Mr. Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., served as national security adviser from April 2018 to September 2019. This essay is adapted from his forthcoming book, “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir,” which Simon & Schuster will publish on June 23.