Donald Trump’s First-Term China Strategy Was A Success

Donald Trump’s First-Term China Strategy Was A Success

China’s geopolitical position in the region and around the world, along with its overall economic strength, suffered from Washington’s countering strategy initiated by Trump, which Biden has continued in many respects.

A president’s foreign policy legacy is not defined by contemporary criticism but by how well he understood and handled the principal grand strategic challenges of his time. For instance, Harry Truman sustained heavy criticism for “losing China” to the Communists and failing to deter North Korea’s invasion of South Korea. But, on the whole, he is regarded as a far-sighted statesman for accepting the grand strategy of Soviet containment that guided U.S. foreign policy throughout the First Cold War.

Similarly, despite criticism of many aspects of his foreign policy, Donald Trump’s defining foreign policy legacy is his initiation of a grand strategy to counter China’s military and economic expansionism during the New Cold War. Trump got the main foreign policy issue of our time right.

Biden has continued many elements of Trump’s China strategy, but its general tone is wrong. Instead of articulating a clear policy to counter Beijing’s expansionist ambitions, the Biden administration sought to mix competition and cooperation policies. This was a mistake, and regardless of the outcome of the 2024 election, the United States needs to return to the principles outlined by the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy (NSS) and National Defense Strategy (NDS) documents. Crucially, the NSS rejected the post-Cold War American policy of treating China as a potential partner and a would-be “responsible stakeholder of the international system,” in the words of former Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoelick. This was a critical step towards recognizing Communist China for what it is: an implacable adversary.

Both documents correctly diagnosed the rise of China as the most important geopolitical challenge for the United States in the new era of great power competition. In Asia, the Trump NSS argued, “China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor.” 

The language on China in the NDS is even stronger: 

China is leveraging military modernization, influence operations, and predatory economics to coerce neighboring countries to reorder the Indo-Pacific region to their advantage. As China continues its economic and military ascendance, asserting power through an all-of-nation long-term strategy, it will continue to pursue a military modernization program that seeks Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near term and displacement of the United States to achieve global preeminence in the future.

In other words, China is the single most important threat to the U.S.-led international system that guarantees freedom, peace, and prosperity for the American people and freedom-loving people everywhere. America’s grand strategy should focus on countering Beijing’s expansionist ambitions across the economic, technological, diplomatic, and military domains of power. 

This realist shift was accompanied by a change in concrete policy decisions. In its four years in office, the Trump administration enacted a series of measures that reflected a serious concern with China’s foreign policy in Asia and beyond.

With regard to international trade, Washington abandoned the failed strategy of turning a blind eye to China’s malign practices. It imposed tariffs to punish Beijing for its economic cheating and adopted policies to counter the CCP’s “Made in China 2025” strategic plan, which involved subsidizing Chinese high-tech companies to displace American and Western companies in China and elsewhere. 

Another important move was to continue the Freedom of Navigation Operations conducted by the U.S. Navy and its partners in the South China Sea, along with uninviting China’s Navy from the large-scale RIMPAC maritime multinational exercise, thus punishing them for their continued land reclamations and militarization of man-made islands in the Spratly Islands

The Trump administration also focused the Pentagon’s attention on a Taiwan scenario, setting the diplomatic stage for an anti-hegemonic coalition directed at China by courting the major regional powers (India, Japan, and Australia), as well as some smaller yet highly motivated regional partners such as Vietnam and the Philippines.

Have these policies and the emerging hardline grand strategy succeeded in advancing Washington’s geopolitical objectives vis-à-vis Beijing? While a direct causal relationship is hard to establish, China’s geopolitical position in the region and around the world, along with its overall economic strength, suffered from Washington’s countering strategy initiated by Trump, which, in many respects, Biden has continued.

While some of President Trump’s critics argue that China would benefit from a return of the former president’s policies, President Xi disagrees and instead fears a second Trump term. As The Wall Street Journal recently reported, the CCP leadership is concerned with new economic measures designed to decouple the U.S. and Chinese economies further and a potential geopolitical coup by Trump, which would degrade the Beijing-Moscow partnership in a “reverse Nixon” diplomatic maneuver.

Optimistic strategists and some policymakers may believe that China’s economic power has already “peaked” and, therefore, Trump’s hardline countering strategy is no longer necessary. Still, as Georgetown University professor Evan Medeiros recently showed, this is a dangerous delusion. The Chinese stock market’s recent recovery is but one data point showcasing Beijing’s continued economic strength, and the recent success of China’s electric vehicle industry also demonstrates a degree of technological sophistication that Western leaders should not underestimate. When one combines China’s growing economic and technological strength with the increasingly bellicose rhetoric of President Xi Jinping, Washington’s need to return to a vigorous countering grand strategy is all the more necessary.

Dr. Ionut Popescu is an associate professor at Texas State University. He is the recipient of the Heritage Foundation’s 2023 Freedom and Opportunity Academic Prize. He is the author of Emergent Strategy and Grand Strategy.

Dan Negrea is the Senior Director of the Atlantic Council’s Freedom and Prosperity Center. He served in leadership positions in the U.S. Department of State between 2018 and 2021. He is the co-author of  We Win They Lose: Republican Foreign Policy and the New Cold War.

Image: Muhammad Aamir Sumsum /