US President Donald Trump
 

President Donald Trump made one of his most provocative comments on China yet on May 14 in an interview with Fox Business News, suggesting that he might consider “cutting off the whole relationship” with China. He added, “You’d save $500 billion if you cut off the whole relationship.”

That President Trump would publicly muse that “cutting off the whole relationship” with China represents a viable and possibly desirable US approach to dealing with China – and that if the US were to do this, it would “save $500 billion” – is remarkable and telling.

It is reflective of the rhetorical “race to the bottom” we now see in this country, particularly within the Republican Party, in which a growing number of US political figures are seemingly seeking to out-compete each other in terms of how tough they can be, in both rhetoric and proposed policy and legislation, toward China.

Derecognition – if that is what President Trump means – would put the People’s Republic of China, and the world’s second-largest economy, into the same category, relative to the status of diplomatic relations with the US, as Iran, Syria and North Korea, for example; These are countries whose relations with the US are characterized by deep-seated and protracted animosity bordering on (and in the case of North Korea, including) an actual state of war. Even by the standards of the latest China-focused rhetoric coming out of today’s Trump-dominated Republican Party, the president’s comment certainly marks a troubling new low. And I suspect the rhetoric will become even more extreme over the coming weeks and months.

If Trump’s comment refers to the trade relationship (as opposed to the entire diplomatic relationship), then it is also very telling, because it provides yet another window into how this president construes trade with China, and trade generally. In short, Trump regards US imports from China, and presumably other countries, as tantamount to a “theft” (a term President Trump himself has used in this context) of US wealth on the part of those trading partners. And thus, by “cutting off the whole relationship” – by which perhaps he means, the whole US-China trade relationship – the US can “save $500 billion.” The “$500 billion” to which Trump refers is, in his mind, the size of the US deficit with China; of course, that is not and never has been the official US figure, but it is the figure he has repeatedly invoked for the last five years signifying what he, in his particular “reality,” understands the size of the US deficit to be. Or, it may be that what Trump actually means by the term “$500 billion” is the approximate volume of goods the US imports from China on an annual basis; and if so, that would be a somewhat more accurate use of the term, “$500 billion.”

Either way, what Trump is saying is this: that “$500 billion” represents the scale of the “theft” China perpetrates against the US presumably on an annual basis. That is a pretty astonishing understanding of the construct of trade. It is the equivalent of saying that when a person spends $30,000 on a new car, that person has been “robbed” of the $30,000; In other words, Trump opts not to ascribe any value whatsoever to what the customer has received in exchange for the money he or she has spent. To say that this is a bizarre understanding of the construct of modern international trade would be to put it mildly. It is certainly a mercantilist understanding. Of course, there is particular irony in the fact that President Trump is expressing this view, given that his trade policies have generated the largest single-year annual US goods deficit with China in history, the largest average goods deficit with China of any US administration in history, and the two largest single-year annual US goods deficits with the world in history. Unable to run for reelection on his failed trade policies, Trump seemingly feels that he has no choice to but to resort to nonsensical bluster.

US-China relations can now certainly be regarded as at an all-time low in the post-1979 era, and I don’t see any sign of this improving in the foreseeable future. COVID-19 has been a game changer. For the first time in generations, a vast swath of the American public has come to believe that China has done something that has palpably and profoundly harmed the American people. I think one would have to go back all the way to the Korean War – when Chinese and American soldiers faced each other directly on the battlefield – to find a comparable moment in the mind of Americans.

US public sentiment toward China has deteriorated dramatically. About 66 percent of Americans now view China negatively and some 40 percent now say they will no longer purchase goods made in China. The view that China is America’s enemy is on the ascendancy in Washington DC and, to some degree, across the country. And, as noted above, we now have a president who is openly talking about derecognition. From the perspective of where things are today, it’s hard to believe that it was only four months ago that President Trump himself publicly proclaimed on January 21, “Our relationship with China, right now, has probably never been better.”

Even granting that President Trump’s early 2020 assessment was an overstatement of the case, the vector between where we are now and where President Trump publicly stated we were on January 21 is a clarion testament to the incredible degree to which COVID-19 has altered the US-China relations landscape in a matter of mere months. Given the US presidential election in November, I think things are only going to get worse over the coming months and beyond. Near-term prospects for the official (federal/central) relationship are bleak – and, at this point, I still don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel. At this challenging moment, it is the subnational stratum – states, cities, the private sector, civil society and individuals – that will need to keep the wheels of bilateral engagement turning.

The article was compiled by Global Times reporter Yu Jincui based on an interview with David Firestein, president and CEO of the George H. W. Bush Foundation for US-China Relations.

(In association with Global Times)