During the 2016 campaign, then-candidate Donald Trump repeatedly promised to get tough on China. While Trump made it a major plank of his platform, it was hardly a new idea to presidential politics, nor was it new to Republicans.

In 2012, Mitt Romney too vowed to crack down on China, promising to officially designate China a currency manipulator – a step that has since been taken by the Trump administration. That’s one of a wide number of policies implemented by the Trump administration to counter the geopolitical actions of the People’s Republic of China all over the world, and so far, he’s largely been taking the right approach.

This marks quite a turnaround from the Obama administration, which seemed to view the People’s Republic more as a potential partner than as a geopolitical foe. That approach, while it may be beneficial to U.S. business interests that want to do business in the country (like the NBA), it doesn’t prioritize U.S. national interests. The truth is that though China may be more than willing to do business with the United States, it is aggressively expanding its geopolitical influence all over the world, and using its economic might to do so.

This is most readily apparent with the Belt and Road Initiative, where China is throwing money around all over the globe to buy loyalty. The economic development loans are often seemingly more generous than those offered by the U.S., but frequently lead nations into enormous debt with the People’s Republic, which allows them to extract further concessions in the future. The Chinese are not only willing to spend more, they’re less concerned about niceties like preventing corruption or human rights abuses in the countries to which they’re lending money. That’s nice for national leaders, whether elected or not, who want to have a big new project to brag about so they can remain in power. It’s also great for China, which gets a new friend and a new asset. It may not be so great for the citizens of the country, who get a deepwater port instead of new housing, schools or medical care.

It was readily apparent long before the pandemic that the United States needed to work strategically to counter China’s influence, rather than passively try to profit from it. Hoping for the best may be the easiest option, but it’s not much of a strategy. America is never going to be able to throw billions of dollars around like China does, but we can certainly act to counter them in other ways, and the Trump administration has been wisely doing that.

Trump seems to take a dim view of free trade overall, as his administration has threatened or actually imposed tariffs on a wide variety of products from various different countries. These include not only dictatorial foes like the People’s Republic of China, but also friends and allies like Canada, India, Mexico and Europe. Antagonizing those countries by imposing tariffs doesn’t make much sense: They’re trustworthy democracies with which we can do business. If we have disagreements with them about trade, we can settle it with them directly or file a complaint with the World Trade Organization. The U.S. did this recently when the EU was heavily subsidizing Airbus, providing the corporation an unfair advantage over Boeing, and the World Trade Organization found in favor of the U.S.

The People’s Republic is in a completely different position, though. Although it’s a participant in the global trade system set up by the West, it more often takes advantage of this system than uses it honestly. It’s a WTO member, but because its government is non-democratic, it’s more difficult both to tell what the country is up to and to hold them accountable for it. It also has much more freedom to act, both covertly and overtly, than its democratic counterparts, regardless of WTO rules.

That’s why it’s been heartening to see the Trump administration at least attempt to hold the People’s Republic accountable for unfair trade practices. Free trade is a good system for most countries, but it’s really free trade only if it’s also fair to both countries, and for too long the People’s Republic has been allowed to undermine trade. It would absolutely be wrong for the U.S. to retreat from free trade in general, but it’s equally wrong to ignore the violations by the People’s Republic and pretend it’s an honest, reliable trading partner.

im Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins.
He can be contacted at: [email protected]
Twitter: @jimfossel

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