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  • Some Consequences of the Pivot to Asia
  • Andrew Ross (bio)

Given Donald Trump’s spasmodic, if not downright flaky, approach to foreign policy, who would bet against the likelihood, at some point during his term in office, of a nail-biting, armed face-off between US and Chinese forces? Whether in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, or the containment zone in and around North Korea, there are many territorial booby traps that could trigger a confrontation between these two superpowers whose relationship—military antagonists as well as major trading partners—is almost unique, by modern historical standards.

In the volatile season of Twitter diplomacy that preceded his assumption of office, it seemed as if Trump had set his mental compass to provoking Beijing at every opportunity. Whether it was over matters of commerce, national sovereignty, or military engagement, he behaved like a bully trying to pick a fight with a formidable rival in the knowledge that there were many reasons why the target would not hit back. All available evidence suggested that Trump was not attentive during (and indeed was openly resistant to the need for) intelligence briefings, and so it is fair to dismiss any notion that he knew something we did not. So what were the circumstances under which he came to escalate the “pivot to Asia,” first disclosed as US foreign policy in 2012 under Hillary Clinton’s helm at the State Department? Statecraft, as it had been practiced at Foggy Bottom for several decades, was thrown out the window with Trump’s ascendancy, but how and why was China chosen as the number one pick for testing out his new style of nation-to-nation messaging?

One of the more twisted spectator sports of the 2016 election was to sit and pick out particles of truth from the flow of raw ideology (some of it the political equivalent of untreated sewage) that issued from Trump’s mouth and Twitter account. When the topic turned to China, this task became extra challenging. On the one hand, his frequent tirades against Beijing’s “dirty tricks” (currency manipulation, intellectual property [IP] theft, product dumping, and “rape of America”) were hardly a departure from the long tradition of China-bashing observed by all quadrants of the US political class, as well as the trade union leadership. This reflexive Sinophobia had barely missed a beat in the transition [End Page 513] from the Cold War to the neoliberal era, landmarked by China’s 2001 accession to the WTO and amped up by the Obama administration’s 2012 “rebalance,” or “pivot to Asia.”

But Trump could be relied on to throw in some new ingredients, including the throwaway assertion that climate change was a hoax engineered by Beijing for its own economic self-interest. More consistently, he promised to impose a whopping 45 percent tariff on all Chinese imports (“if they don’t behave”). This threat prompted a sharp, collective intake of breath from the ranks of economists, and elected officials, who like to darkly warn against a “trade war,” not to mention a suitably pugnacious response from Beijing. Even for those who live by the maxim that trade is war by other means, this kind of protectionist talk was a stark reversal of decades of Washington policy. Tossing aside every truism about the long-term benefits of globalization, Trump openly violated the free trade consensus that business elites had successfully forged among Democrats and Republicans in order to promote their interests.

More surreal was the shape of his opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a centerpiece of the second Obama administration’s trade policy before its chances of advancement on Capitol Hill finally ran out of steam in the wake of Trump’s electoral victory. For its critics, the TPP was only the latest effort to ram home a regional free trade agreement on terms most favorable to multinational corporations. After Bernie Sanders laid out a principled critique of the deal, Clinton performed a classic election-year flip-flop (having helped craft the agreement, she then trimmed her campaign sails to try to catch the strong breeze blowing against it). Trump entered the playing field with a...


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pp. 513-521
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