‘Tough on China’ Historically Never Comes to Fruition


Brief: Donald Trump’s nomination of China-hawk Peter Navarro as head of the White House’s Trade Council has sparked concern about the future of US-China relations. However, historically US presidents have reversed their ‘tough on China’ policies in the face of diplomatic, economic, and security issues. 

Implications: This type of fear mongering and propaganda plays directly into the hands of radical Chinese and is guaranteed to escalate tensions. Fears of US-China trade wars could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Trump’s protectionist economic policies are unrealistic in a globalized economy, especially vis-a-vis China. The most likely consequences will simply be continued harm to US-China relations.

Analysis: Navarro’s previous anti-PRC publications, including the filmDeath by China’, which Trump is quoted on the film’s website as “right on”, gives few China-watchers reason to believe that Trump’s ‘tough on China rhetoric’ is more than just campaign speak.

The question on everyone’s mind is whether anything will come to fruition from these hostile attitudes? One way of thinking of it is through the lens of structuralism. The structural forces of the executive office, the diplomatic realities of dealing with China, and the bureaucratic nature of their new positions are such that Navarro and Trump’s past behavioral tendencies will necessarily become more moderate, because they are entering structures (read “organizations”) that will force their policies to be more realistic in the face of diplomatic, economic and security issues. Here, their behavior prior to entering political office is rationalized by their need to drum up political support and in turn, the need to be provocative.

Previously Navarro unsuccessfully ran for office three separate times in 1992 as mayor of San Diego, in 1996 for the 49th congressional district, and 2001 for City council.

In the case of Trump however, his unrealistic claims and ‘provocativeness’ has seemingly merged with the foundations for his domestic and foreign policy. The result is that we can predict that Trump will run into the same issue that the CCP faces all the time, namely: unrealistic nationalistic claims often clash with diplomatic realities.

“The Chinese government has been more willing to repress nationalist protests when it wants to defuse a crisis and preserve diplomatic progress”

-Jessica Chen Weiss “Nationalism and Escalation in the East China Sea


The reality is these ‘lost American jobs” are not coming back to the US. The principles of capitalism ensure that those who are willing to work for the lowest salary will be favored over expensive American employment. It’s not China’s fault that US manufacturing jobs are disappearing, it’s the result of the US consumer’s demand being met by US corporations in the cheapest way.

“The reality is that if something were to happen that cost China jobs, like if they upwardly revalued the currency a lot, those jobs aren’t going to come back to the U.S., they would go to Vietnam, they would go to Thailand, they would go to whatever country was the lowest cost…” –Wilbur Ross “Wilbur Ross’s Chinese Love Affair

Additionally, Trump’s protectionist attitudes are unrealistic in a globalized economy. China is the US’s largest trading and manufacturing partner and the US is its largest consumer; acting ‘tough on China’ can only result in China ‘acting tough on the US economy’. If Trump attempts to enact these unrealistic policies, then it will spark a guaranteed trade war between two of the most mutually dependent economies in the world.

Historically US presidents have reversed their ‘tough on China’ policies in the face of diplomatic, economic, and security issues:

  • Regan criticized Carter for being too soft on China and promised to restore relations with Taiwan, but never did.
  • Clinton criticized George H. W. Bush for maintaining relations with China after Tiananmen and threatened to revoke China’s most favored nation status, but never did.
  • George W. Bush called China a ‘competitor’ “but after 9/11 he needed Chinese support in the global war on terrorism.” -David Lampton (Washington Post article)

In James Mann’s book About Face he “reviews how most U.S. presidents after Richard Nixon reversed themselves once in office by jettisoning tough campaign rhetoric and adopting a less confrontational China policy”

– Thomas J. Christenson The China Challenge

On the other hand, Trump’s election is a product of conservative nationalism, which consequently takes an anti-PRC stance. Trump is known for making wildly unorthodox moves on many topics and it would come as no surprise to see him stick to his guns, especially given his political inexperience and ego.


(CC Photo Credit)



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