Michael Pillsbury and Kishore Mahbubani debate whether it’s in America’s interest for Joe Biden to continue Donald Trump’s China policy.
Michael Pillsbury and Kishore Mahbubani, Special to National Post
The most important thing to understand first is what was U.S. President Donald Trump’s China policy and what president-elect Joe Biden would need to do to follow it.
One of the first things all presidents do is they demonize the opponent they just beat. They repeat the campaign allegations against their opponent, usually in their first year, and sometimes for their entire first term. And what we heard from the Biden campaign, and then with the appointment of some key people, like Antony Blinken as secretary of state and Jake Sullivan as national security advisor, is that the Trump policy towards China was really bad. It was stupid.
The Biden team believes Trump’s policy created a vacuum of leadership in Asia because Trump so badly handled all of America’s allies in that region. Now, Biden has to repair this terrible damage. From the point of view of President Trump, however, he did nothing to damage America’s allies in Asia and he absolutely did not create a vacuum in leadership.
Recently, the first two Biden transition team members went into the White House to read the secret Trump China policy for about a day. They’ve made no comment since then. I believe they will continue demonizing Trump, so it will be very difficult for outsiders to predict what Biden will do. However, I also predict that the new administration’s China policy will be very similar to its predecessor, even though they will deny it. They will claim that it was their original idea to crack down on theft and other areas of the comprehensive China challenges we are facing.
President Trump’s China policy was not to make China weaker. No Trump administration spokesperson ever said that. This is a kind of rhetorical device used to criticize Trump as though he must have said it, but actually, not only did he not say it, he said the opposite. He said he wants more American investment by our investment companies in China, and part of the Phase 1 trade agreement sought to make this happen. Our top six banks have now entered China, and China has changed its policy very dramatically and allowed our banks to have fully owned investment companies inside China for the first time ever since the 1930s.
There are a number of other aspects of President Trump’s policy where he tried to work with China.
However, he did say many times that if Hillary Clinton had been elected, China would be surpassing the U.S. GDP during her term. He did not want that to happen on his watch. He did not want China to surpass the United States. As far as I can tell, the Biden team has the same way of thinking, even though they don’t overtly say, “make America great again,” or “America first.”
Some experts believe that the metrics favour the United States almost across the board and that China will never catch up with us. However, that’s simply not true. We are not competitive anymore as an economy. And we have to fix ourselves in education, technology, innovation, etc. There is a long list of areas we must address before we can ever be sure of staying ahead of China forever.
We’ve got Chinese economists on the record saying, “In 2049, China will be at least triple the American economy.” That’s what President Trump meant when he said, “China will own us if we can’t change these trends.” So I hate to say that I’m against co-operation with China. That’s irrational. There are large areas of co-operation. But we must maintain a sense of vigilance.
We can’t be nice to China so that everybody else will think, “Oh gee, isn’t that wonderful. The two great powers co-operate.” China is on the wrong path in many, many ways, and the rest of the world had better try to get China to get back to the right approach or we’re all going to be very, very sorry. And that’s why I believe the Trump policy toward China will be followed by the Biden team, but with no credit to Trump.
Michael Pillsbury is the director of the Center on Chinese Strategy at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. and the author of three books on China.
By Kishore Mahbubani
The goal of U.S. President Donald Trump’s China policy was to make America stronger and China weaker. The obvious question to ask, then, after four years of Donald Trump, is: has America become stronger and has China become weaker? And I would say on several counts, China has actually become stronger over the past four years.
In 2009, the size of the retail goods market in China was $1.8 trillion, and in the United States it was $4 trillion. Fast forward 10 years to 2019, three years into Trump’s term, and China’s retail goods market had increased to $6 trillion while the United States was at $5.5 trillion. During Trump’s term, the United States has lost its biggest competitive advantage over China.
Donald Trump did say that he wanted to make America great again. That was his goal and he intended for America to become stronger after four years of a trade war. Unfortunately, the data seems to show that the trade war has completely failed.
Firstly, the trade deficit with China hasn’t gone down, while the trade deficit with the rest of the world has gone up. In 2016, Trump told Michigan workers, “You won’t lose one plant. I promise you that.” Four years later, Michigan has actually lost three major auto plants.
In 2016, China bought $13.7 billion worth of American soy beans, by 2018, two years into the Trump administration, that number had fallen by nearly half. And at the same time, a Moody’s analytics report in September 2019 said the trade war had already cost the U.S. economy nearly 300,000 jobs and an estimated 0.3 per cent of real GDP.
I’m quoting these sources to indicate that if the goal of the trade war was to make America great again, with a more powerful economy, lower trade deficit, more jobs and more exports for U.S. agriculture, all of the data shows that President Trump failed in the goals he set for himself in the trade war.
We can also see this shift in the way the two countries handled COVID-19. While we cannot blame President Trump for COVID-19, the world has watched the two countries handle the virus very differently. If the United States were equal in the rate of deaths per population as China, it would currently have 1,000 deaths, not 300,000.
While you can’t blame President Trump for this, it is a rather clear indicator that China has become a much stronger, more competent country. Therefore, if Trump’s policy was to make China weaker, it hasn’t succeeded. And therefore, I would suggest that maybe Biden should consider a totally fresh approach to handling China.
I am reminded of a speech that former president Bill Clinton gave at Yale in 2003, in which he said, “If America is going to be number 1 for forever, fine, we can do whatever we want to do.” But, he said, “if we can conceive of a world where America is no longer number 1, then surely it is in America’s interests to strengthen multilateral rules, multilateral institutions, multilateral norms, multilateral processes.”
I would say the best way to contain China is not to take a bilateral approach, which is what the Trump administration has been doing, but to take a multilateral approach and agree on a common set of rules. You can’t do this with 300 million Americans alone. You need the six billion people in the rest of the world to engage in the process of making sure that when China becomes number 1, it is a more rule-abiding China, rather than one that is a rogue actor.
We should think about what kind of world we want to have when China becomes number 1. We want to have a China that abides by multilateral rules and processes, and the United States can take a lead in pushing for that.
Kishore Mahbubani is a distinguished fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute, former president of the UN Security Council and the founding dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.