Trump Administration Rewrote US Approach to China Threat

Trump Administration Rewrote US Approach to China Threat
Then-President Donald Trump boards Air Force One before departing Harlingen, Texas, on Jan. 12, 2021. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)
Cathy He
News Analysis

For four years, former President Donald Trump’s administration broke with previous U.S. governments to confront the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) head-on, pushing back against its malign actions aimed at remodeling the world to its own brand of techno-totalitarianism.

The administration recognized the vastness of the Chinese regime’s infiltration campaign that has left virtually no aspect of American society untouched, China experts say. Trump administration officials have described Beijing’s threats as an all-out assault against America’s economic prosperity, national security, and freedoms, as well as that of democracies around the globe.

In doing so, the United States repudiated the decades-held conventional wisdom that informed a policy of engagement toward Beijing—that economic liberalization would lead to a more democratic China. That thinking is now widely accepted as wrong.

The former president’s biggest achievement was that he “completely changed the terms of debate in the United States about how to deal with communist China,” J. Michael Waller, a senior analyst for strategy at the Washington-based think tank Center for Security Policy, told The Epoch Times.

“Trump tore a hole through the CCP propaganda line that is for peace, and mutual development and mutual cooperation around the world,” he said. “The CCP had been able to get away with this lie for many years, whether it was under a Republican or Democrat president.”

Senior administration officials, notably former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, for the first time recognized the nature of the CCP (distinct from the Chinese people) as a “Marxist-Leninist regime,” and how this ideology shapes its goal for global hegemony and the way in which it seeks to get there.
“China is engaged in a whole-of state effort to become the world’s only superpower by any means necessary,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said last July.

The transformation of U.S.-China relations under Trump was such that “it can never go back to the way it was,” Waller said. He added the Biden administration is now “hemmed in” from pursuing a more accommodationist approach towards Beijing. Indeed, President Joe Biden’s secretary of state, Antony Blinken, at his recent Senate confirmation hearing, admitted that “Trump was right” to take a tough-on-China approach, although he disagreed in how it should be done.

While the U.S.-China trade war dominated headlines for much of Trump’s presidency, a range of other actions was set in motion tackling economic and national security threats from Beijing. But in early 2020, when it became evident that the Chinese regime covered up the severity of the CCP virus outbreak—allowing it to spread across the world—the administration turbo-charged efforts to confront Beijing. The result was a “whole-of-government” clampdown.

By the end of the year, the administration would launch at least 210 actions across 10 agencies, according to Axios.

Tackling Unfair Trade Practices

Fulfilling a campaign promise to take China to task for its unfair trade practices, Trump in the spring of 2018 announced tariffs on a long list of Chinese imports, igniting the U.S.-China trade war. The tariffs were levied following a “Section 301” probe that found that the regime was engaging in state-sanctioned intellectual property theft. Trump would go on to levy tariffs on hundreds of billions worth of Chinese goods, before a phase-one trade was signed in January 2020.
The trade deal included commitments from Beijing to buy an additional $200 billion in U.S. goods and services in 2020 and 2021, protect intellectual property, stop forced technology transfers, and provide transparency on foreign exchange practices. But a January 2021 report found that China has bought just 58 percent of the goods it had promised to.
Trump’s tariffs, still intact on $360 billion worth of Chinese imports, resulted in many manufacturers moving their production away from China to Southeast Asia. This trend accelerated amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as the crisis exposed the vulnerability of global supply chains, particularly in critical industries.

Walling Off Huawei, Chinese Tech

Over the course of 2020, the Trump administration managed to convince dozens of countries to boot out Chinese telecom giant Huawei from their 5G infrastructure, under the “Clean Network” initiative. This under-the-radar success story seemed unthinkable in early 2020. But as the pandemic hit, the Chinese regime’s coverup and subsequent disinformation campaign led Western governments to reassess their relationship with it.

Launched last spring, the program quickly took off with about 60 partnered countries, representing more than two-thirds of the world economy, and 200 telecom companies joining the alliance by January.

“The Clean Network’s momentum turned the tide on Huawei and the CCP’s 5G master plan,” then-undersecretary of state for economic growth, energy, and environment Keith Krach, the official who spearheaded the initiative, told The Epoch Times last December.

“Countries and companies are terrified of the CCP’s doctrine of intimidation, retaliation, and retribution. And that, basically, is a bully. When you confront a bully, they back down. And they really back down if you have your friends by your side,” he said.

Trump officials were vociferous in their warnings that Huawei and other Chinese technology companies, in both software and hardware, could be used by Beijing for spying. They cited Chinese laws that compel companies to cooperate with intelligence agencies when asked, as well as that all entities in the country are beholden to the CCP.

The former president’s executive orders last year banning Chinese-owned apps TikTok and WeChat were aimed at blocking Beijing’s access to large volumes of American data that could be used for intelligence operations and to enhance the regime’s artificial intelligence tools, officials said. Those bans are now entangled in court battles, and it remains to be seen if the Joe Biden administration will continue defending the orders.
The execution of Trump’s latest order in January banning eight Chinese apps, including payment apps Alipay and WeChat Pay, is now left to the Biden administration, and it remains to be seen how they will act.

Combating Espionage

The Justice Department’s (DOJ) historic crackdown on Chinese espionage and infiltration under its “China Initiative” was another campaign that went largely unnoticed. Launched in late 2018, the initiative led to a dramatic upsurge in prosecutions targeting Beijing’s state-sanctioned theft of trade secrets. FBI Director Wray said last year that the agency is opening one China-related case every 10 hours, and has almost 2,500 active investigations across all bureaus.
The campaign zeroed in on Chinese hackers, spies, and employees at American companies who allegedly stole IP for China’s benefit. It also extended to U.S.-based academics and researchers, who have been targeted by Beijing for years through recruitment programs, known as talent plans, designed to facilitate the transfer of technology and know-how to China. A spate of researchers have been charged for hiding their links to these programs, the most high-profile being Harvard University’s former chemistry chair Charles Leiber.
Prosecutors alleged that Lieber was awarded $1.5 million to set up a lab in China, while working on sensitive research in the United States, for which he received more than $15 million in federal grants since 2008.
Last year, the campaign disrupted a vast network of undercover Chinese military officers posing as students in the United States. Six Chinese researchers were charged with visa fraud. The FBI investigation, coupled with the closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston over its espionage and malign influence activities, led to over 1,000 military-linked Chinese researchers leaving the country, according to John C. Demers, assistant attorney general for national security.

Bolstering National Security

Guided by the 2017 National Security Strategy and the 2018 Indo-Pacific Strategy, the administration sought to enhance its alliances in the Asia-Pacific to counter the regime’s growing influence abroad. In 2018, the U.S. military renamed U.S. Pacific Command to Indo-Pacific Command, signifying a strategic pivot. Last year, the United States strengthened its defense cooperation with India, a key counterweight to China. The Chinese regime’s hostilities on the border with India further antagonized their relationship.
The administration also revitalized the informal framework known as the Quad between Australia, India, Japan, and the United States, becoming a military and diplomatic force in the region.

The United States’ relationship with Taiwan also warmed significantly during the Trump administration. Last year, it sent two high-level officials to visit the democratic island, the first of whom was then-Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar. He was the highest-level U.S. Cabinet official to visit since the United States switched formal relations to China from Taiwan in 1979. Arms sales to the self-ruled island, which Beijing threatens to seize by force if necessary, also increased.

“We’ve stood by our friends in Taiwan,” Pompeo said in a Jan. 7 tweet. “Over the past 3 years, the Trump Administration authorized more than $15 billion in arms sales to Taiwan. The Obama Administration? $14 billion dollars in sales over 8 years.”

Meanwhile, the launch of the U.S. Space Force in 2019 as a new branch of the military was a vital first step in pushing back against China and Russia’s ambitions to weaponize space.
The administration also took aim at the Chinese regime’s “civil-military fusion” strategy, which directs private industry innovations to be leveraged in support of China’s military modernization. Chinese graduate students affiliated with institutions that support the strategy were banned from obtaining visas. Dozens of Chinese companies were placed on a trade blacklist over their role in supporting Chinese military activities.
In a groundbreaking move, Trump banned U.S. investments in a list of 45 Chinese companies deemed by the Pentagon as having ties to the Chinese military. The order sought to block the flow of American capital, including through public pension and retirement funds, into firms that aid the regime’s military—jeopardizing U.S. national security. It was a problem overlooked for years, according to security experts.

“Most Americans have no idea that their own money—held in pension funds, 401(k)s, and brokerage accounts—is financing CCP’s military, the surveillance state, and human rights abuses through an undisclosed opaque web of subsidiaries, index funds, and financial products,” Krach said in January.

The ban, which took effect in January and sets a November deadline for divestments, has so far led to index providers removing several Chinese companies from its emerging markets index and the New York Stock Exchange delisting three Chinese telecom firms.

Taking Action on Human Rights

In a marked shift from previous governments, the Trump administration backed up its tough rhetoric condemning Beijing’s rights abuses with action. In 2020, it sanctioned 20 CCP and Hong Kong officials, including Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam and a member of the CCP’s powerful Politburo, primarily over the regime’s crushing of Hong Kong’s freedoms and persecution of Uyghurs in the region of Xinjiang.
“I really applaud many of the things that the administration has done to move away from this naïve idea that you can just engage with such a repressive regime behind closed doors only with words,” UK rights activist Benedict Rogers recently told The Epoch Times.

“Actually, what you need to get the message across is punitive measures, the kind of sanctions that the U.S. has introduced.”

In December, Pompeo also sanctioned a Chinese police chief over his involvement in “gross human rights violations” against practitioners of Falun Gong, a spiritual practice violently suppressed by the CCP for more than 21 years. This marked the first time the United States has punished a Chinese official for participating in the persecution.

In one of his final acts as secretary of state, Pompeo declared the CCP’s repression of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities as “genocide,” a move that will likely make firms think twice before doing business with Xinjiang, a leading global supplier of cotton.

Cathy He is the politics editor at the Washington D.C. bureau. She was previously an editor for U.S.-China and a reporter covering U.S.-China relations.
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