Trump may have botched Syria, but his China trade strategy deserves praise

Robert Delaney says the impact of Donald Trump’s decision to launch missile strikes on Syria is still unclear, but his trade strategy with China is already yielding results. The question is whether he can extend the benefits to the long term by bringing in US allies

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 April, 2018, 4:44pm
UPDATED : Monday, 16 April, 2018, 7:09pm

The raging debate over whether US President Donald Trump was justified in launching missile strikes on Syria overshadows the fact that the move was a direct attack on his own stated policy of non-intervention in Middle East conflicts.

Trying to remake the region in Washington’s image, he argued, got the United States nothing but more debt.

Was Trump moved enough by the suffering of children to violate his own doctrine? Or was it that he could not resist the opportunity to launch an attack against someone, anyone, to distract the media and relieve some of the stress caused by multiple investigations of people close to him. You decide.

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The aftermath of Trump’s latest aggressive move may seem like a strange time to praise the US leader. But some credit is due when it comes to his approach to another problem, one with heavier long-term consequences than Syria. 

Before Trump took office, Washington policymakers and advisers did a wonderful job giving the country’s leaders face, but they got very little in return

President Xi Jinping and members of his economic team have, in recent weeks, talked about economic reform and market opening with more specificity than we have seen since Beijing began negotiating its way into the World Trade Organisation in the late 1990s.

That Beijing is talking this way so soon after Trump put his punitive tariff strategy and tough talk towards China into play suggests they saw few other options.

This forces us to look at Washington’s diplomacy with respect to China in a new light. In the decade and a half before Trump took office, Washington policymakers and advisers did a wonderful job giving the country’s leaders face, but they got very little in return. It took unvarnished threats from an unhinged American leader to break the logjam.

Beijing’s defenders will say the reforms Xi and his team are now pledging align with China’s own interests and would have happened regardless of how loudly Trump pounded his fists. But the timing makes it difficult to suggest Washington’s threats played no part.

This gives more credibility to those who have said all along that China sees concessions as a sign of weakness, and that the country’s leadership respects power above all else.

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Key takeaways from Xi Jinping’s speech to the Boao Forum

China is no longer the economic backwater it was when Washington and other developed countries – goaded by multinational companies salivating over the chance to enter the country’s markets – agreed to a playing field tilted in favour of domestic companies in exchange for WTO entry.

Whether sharply higher tariffs are the way to go, Trump was right to take off the kid gloves. But now comes the hard part. How will he play his hand in a way that convinces Beijing to follow through with the reforms Xi is pledging and averts a ruinous global trade war?

If Trump was a shrewd strategist, he would be able to parlay his success so far with Beijing into a long-term win by bringing US allies in on a squeeze play. That is, Washington could spell out a few specific demands with respect to trade and investment with China that Brussels, London and Tokyo could also adopt.

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As Ryan Hass, at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, said in a report last week: “Beijing judges that as long as it can prevent an ‘everyone-versus-China’ dynamic from emerging, it can weather unilateral pressure from Washington and retain its state-backed industrial model.” The report suggested that “the longer US-China trade tensions persist, the more likely Beijing will offer concessions to traditional US partners like Japan, Canada and the EU to draw them closer to China and further from the United States.”

But Trump burned himself when he unleashed his scorched Earth foreign policy shortly after taking office. In his effort to hastily undo everything, long-time US allies were enemies and adversaries – China and Russia, in particular – were praised.

If the smoke of Trump’s impulsive foreign policy tactics clears, will US allies be forgiving enough to join a coalition with the US to ensure Xi follows through on his pledges? Stay tuned. 

Robert Delaney is a US correspondent for the Post based in New York