by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/CC
THE INCOHERENCY of American trade policy and geostrategic thinking under Donald Trump is evident in Trump’s blanket labeling of China, Japan, and Germany as trade manipulators. This is illustrative of the means by which domestic concerns take priority above all else for the Trump administration, with America’s foreign commitments taking a backseat to American domestic concerns. It was expected that Trump would target China as a currency manipulator, as based on his campaign promises, but it is unexpected that he would also target American allies Japan and Germany.
As Trump reiterated during his inauguration speech, his platform is to put “America first” before any other concerns. As such, Trump labelling China a currency manipulator cannot be seen as part of coherent foreign policy aimed at taking steps to counter growing Chinese influence through increased America presence in the Asia Pacific. Particularly in Taiwan, some have not yet grasped the means by which Trump differs from traditional Republicans who can be expected to be antagonistic towards China and call for stepping up American military presence in the Asia Pacific.
After a week which has seen an unprecedented assault on civil liberties in America, we may note that Americans should have been prepared from the onset for Trump’s actions. Namely, Trump is simply carrying out his campaign promises, as outlined in previous speeches. Trump is in fact not tarrying on realizing his campaign platform, as many other presidents would have, seeing as Trump has no hesitation about using executive orders to force the realization of his campaign platform.
As such, we can probably expect Trump to follow through on promises to label China a currency manipulator, a longstanding refrain of his campaign. While Trump has repeated comments that accuse China of currency manipulation after his election victories, it remains to be seen what concrete measures this will entail against China. Will Trump, for example, impose tariffs on Chinese goods entering America?
Regardless, before we assume that this is part of broader strategy aimed at stepping up American commitments in Asia to contain China, we do well to realize that Trump’s personal aims are probably still focused on America. For example, Trump may simply be aiming to raise the stakes for an eventual trade deal between America and China through declaring China a currency manipulator. Trump appointees ranging from more traditional Republican appointees as Rex Tillerson to Steve Bannon of the Alt-Right have suggested that America needs to step up moves to curb China’s influence in the South China Seas. But that Trump also is willing to target American allies as Japan or Germany raises doubts about whether Trump really has any coherent Asia policy—or any thought through foreign policy, really.
Again, Japan and Germany are, of course, staunch American allies, but it seems that American allies the world over will have to come to anticipate America unexpectedly turning on them in the coming years of the Trump administration. After all, due to anxiety over an unprecedented American troop withdrawal from the Asia Pacific, Shinzo Abe made it a point to meet with Donald Trump shortly after his election victory. This was probably a shrewd political move by Abe, who likely correctly read Trump as an individual susceptible to personal flattery, and so saw the need to butter him up as quickly as possible. But Trump would later turn on him nonetheless. As Trump has suggested, under his administration, all of America’s ally relationships seem up for negotiation. Taiwan or other countries cannot expect any interest by Trump in living up to treaty commitments or long-standing political relationships. Again, as Trump outlined in his inauguration speech, “America first” before anything.
To be sure, China is in fact guilty of underselling its products in order to flood the market and a number of other illicit trade practices, but it is not seen as currently engaged in currency manipulation, although it had done so in the past. Nor is Japan currently engaged in currency manipulation. But although growing trade imbalances between America and China, Japan, and Germany had previously led America to place these three countries on a watchlist during the Obama administration, very probably, Trump’s worldview is happy to label any large economy apart from the United States as a “currency manipulator”.
Trump seems to be highly influenced by his trade advisor Peter Navarro in this, seeing as Navarro’s understanding of economics emphasizes manufacturing as an economic cure-all, and he seems to view any countries which deviate from an emphasis on manufacturing as monstrous aberrations from the natural order of the free market. Hence Navarro’s long-standing animosity towards China, which borders on the irrational.
Neither Navarro nor Trump would seem to understand that the world economy has changed since the heyday of American manufacturing with the advent of globalization. American manufacturing jobs can no longer be brought back to America to allow America to return to some idealized golden age of American prosperity. Yet, again, it is Trump’s attempt to reinvigorate the domestic economy which swallows up foreign policy for the Trump administration.
So while some have welcomed Trump declaring China a currency manipulator as a potential sign of steps taken by the Trump administration to take a stronger stance against China, one should not really expect this to be the case. “America first” for the Trump administration means that domestic priorities will take precedent over foreign policy commitments. One expects attacks on China as a currency manipulator to be part of indiscriminately targeting and incoherent foreign policy, then, which may also target American allies.
Perhaps Trump does aim to heighten the stakes for an eventual trade deal with China down the line, but if so, Trump’s aims are to secure a deal beneficial for only America and this does not represent commitment by Trump to the military containment of China. Costly foreign interventions as Trump has sworn off seem likely to be anathema to Trump, after campaign promises lashing out at foreign intervention as a case of American action which benefits other countries but only serves to drain American resources, and enacting drastic cuts to national programs in order to trim the American budget deficit.
The Trump administration’s aims are fundamentally protectionist and isolationist in nature, then, even if it does occasionally issue statements that make it appear as though it intends to take a tough stance on China. This returns to the mixed messages sent out by the Trump administration which are a product of its political incoherence. How is one supposed to square claims by Rex Tillerson that America will block China’s access to its artificial island building projects in the South China Seas with America’s withdrawal from the TPP on the first day of the Trump administration, for example, as well as with Trump’s campaign calls to withdraw American troops in South Korea and Japan and then later reversals by Trump on that stance?
Notably, Trump calling for a reduction in American overseas troop commitments, including lashing out at American allies in the process of doing so, is nothing new. This can be observed in a 1987 ad that he took out in New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Boston Globe accusing Japan of freeloading off the US due to costly American commitments to defend Japan. This worldview of Trump does not seem to be new and may indicate the future direction of Trump’s policy moves. Yet, again, too much is simply incoherent about Trump’s policy actions and this extends to his foreign policy.
But regardless of what actions the Trump administration seems to undertake against China, its fundamental priorities only lie with America. One cannot expect foreign policy commitments against China from the Trump administration on the basis of labelling China a currency manipulator. In fact, we do well to remember that any country can become a target of the Trump administration if it presents a convenient enough target. We are in for difficult and unpredictable times, then.