Trump’s Primary Legacy on China Isn’t What You Think

February 2, 2021 Topic: Security Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Donald TrumpAsiaChinaDiplomacyGreat Power Competition

Trump’s Primary Legacy on China Isn’t What You Think

As Joe Biden takes up the reins of foreign policy, he should abandon Donald Trump’s flirtation with regime change in China.

As President Biden inherits a world shaped by Donald Trump’s foreign policy team, several analysts have sought to evaluate Trump’s legacy on China. According to one camp, Trump has forged a tougher, bipartisan consensus, a welcome change from past administrations that naively sought cooperation with Beijing. The opposite camp, including Paul Herr of the Center for the National Interest, views Trump’s confrontational approach as having done more harm than good.

By focusing on the general tenor of U.S. policy (i.e., competition vs. cooperation), these analysts have overlooked a subtler and more important shift. Under Trump, American officials not only confronted China more often; they also began to openly question the Chinese Communist Party’s right to hold power. As Biden takes up the reins of foreign policy, he should abandon Trump’s flirtation with regime change in China.

During the Obama administration, officials were careful to stress that the United States does not seek to topple the Chinese Communist Party; rather, they explained that it was in the Chinese government’s interest to cooperate on issues of global concern. While Obama was unable to change Chinese behavior on every issue, he did negotiate Beijing’s assent to the Paris Climate Accords, UN Security Council sanctions against North Korea, and restraint toward Taiwan.

Trump and his advisers dramatically shifted from Obama’s diplomatic approach: rather than condemning the CCP’s behavior, they questioned its legitimacy. Last May, Deputy National Security Advisor Matthew Pottinger delivered a speech in Mandarin on the anniversary of the May Fourth Movement, a mass uprising that occurred in Beijing in 1919. As for whether “the movement’s democratic aspirations [will] remain unfulfilled for another century,” Pottinger remarked, “only the Chinese people themselves can answer.” Mike Pompeo echoed these comments a month later in a speech at the Nixon Presidential Library, pronouncing that “communists almost always lie. The biggest lie that they tell is to think that they speak for 1.4 billion people.” Quoting Nixon, he further argued that “the world cannot be safe until China changes.”

Pottinger and Pompeo’s rhetoric is dangerous for three reasons.

First, condemning the regime’s character rather than its behavior is likely to provoke a nationalist backlash. The Century of Humiliation, a period from 1839 to 1949 in which China was subjugated by outside actors, is never far from the Chinese popular imagination. Since his rise to power in 2012, Xi Jinping has repeatedly stoked nationalism to shore up domestic support, often pairing it with condemnations of American “imperialism.”

Second, the Chinese Communist Party will now interpret U.S. demands, no matter how narrow and conditional on specific behaviors, as seeking to undermine their government. U.S. calls to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, maintain autonomy for Hong Kong, and respect Uighur rights will be met with skepticism if not outright rejection.

Third, Pottinger and Pompeo’s calls for democracy in China are detached from a theory of change. While the Trump appointees insist that a silent majority in China opposes the CCP’s rule, the high-quality surveys and reporting that do exist point in a very different direction. The United States has a poor record in predicting regime change abroad, from the popular uprising that never emerged at the Bay of Pigs, to the fall of the Soviet Union that American diplomats failed to foresee. Nor do Pottinger or Pompeo explain how greater force or harsher rhetoric will induce radical transformation within the Chinese Communist Party itself, any more than the economic and political engagement that they cast aside.

Biden’s team will have to live with the fact that the Chinese government’s behavior often runs contrary to U.S. interests and the welfare of its own citizens, but pushing for regime change would be unwise. The debate will continue over how to balance competition and cooperation with Beijing, and the Biden administration will likely maintain some of Trump’s tougher policies. Whatever the specifics of Biden’s approach, however, he must avoid advocating the overthrow of the Chinese government.

Bo Carlson is the Program Coordinator for the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He previously held positions at the Center for International and Strategic Studies (CSIS) and the Organization of American States. All views are his own. 

Image: Reuters