Opinion: Separate ways? Donald Trump's approach to China 'stuck in the 1990s'

Story highlights

  • Donald Trump's approach to China stuck in the 1990s, says Shannon Tiezzi
  • Impossible for two countries "to go separate ways" as Trump suggests

Shannon Tiezzi is the managing editor at The Diplomat magazine. She specializes in China's foreign policy and U.S.-China relations. The opinions expressed here are solely hers.

(CNN)China and how it is "killing us on trade" has been a campaign trail target for Republican frontrunner Donald Trump. But in his much-anticipated foreign policy address at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington D.C. Thursday, he focused far more on terrorism and extremism than on the Asia-Pacific.

When the conversation did turn to China, Trump seemed stuck in the 1990s -- when Beijing was a bit player on most global and regional issues, and his suggested approach revealed a fundamental misunderstanding of the entangled nature of U.S.-China trade.
    Shannon Tiezzi is the managing editor at The Diplomat magazine.
    When explaining why America's "rivals no longer respect us," he was apparently more concerned with the loss of Chicago's U.S. Olympic bid than with increasing assertiveness from China in disputed waters in both the South and East China Seas.
    "China respects strength," Trump said, and we are "letting them take advantage of us economically," he said.

    Trade-centric view

    It seems Trump views China almost entirely through the lens of trade, perhaps not surprising given his own background as a businessman.
    His main criticism of the Obama administration's China policy is that it "has allowed China to continue its economic assault" on the United States, something he had previously described as the "theft of American jobs."
    No mention is made of China's bids to mold international norms -- whether on interpretations of maritime law or Internet governance -- to its own liking and to the disadvantage of the United States.
    And while Trump gave a nod to the rapidly increasing capabilities of the Russian and Chinese militaries, it's unclear from his speech why exactly this is a problem if China's primary threat is stealing American jobs.
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    Cavalier approach

    That misunderstanding of China's role in the modern world -- and particularly in the Asia-Pacific region -- may be why Trump is so cavalier about U.S. allies.
    He famously suggested in previous interviews that the U.S. could withdraw its troops from South Korea and Japan if those two countries don't shoulder more of burden of the military cost.
    He repeated those threats here, complaining that "our allies are not paying their fair share."
    If U.S. allies, whether in NATO or in Asia, won't pay up, "the U.S. must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves."
    This picture of alliances assumes that it's completely altruistic on the U.S. part -- an act of international charity.
    That's of course a massive misunderstanding of the rationale for U.S. alliances, which provide America with forward operating bases that directly defend U.S. national security.
    Even on the economic front, however, Trump doesn't seem to understand the U.S.-China relationship.
    He promises, with typical vagueness, to somehow fix these trade issues, including China's cyber-economic espionage.
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    Separate ways?

    If a President Trump can't hammer out a good deal with China, the U.S. and China will "go separate ways," he says -- apparently misunderstanding the deeply connected nature of U.S.-China trade.
    A bilateral trade relationship is not the sort of negotiation where you can simply walk away from the table.
    Trump's assumption that the U.S. have the economic "leverage" over China to coerce Beijing to rein in North Korea stems from a similar assumption: that a trade war will somehow only harm the Chinese economy.
    Again, this assumption may have been true in the 1990s, when U.S.-China trade was far smaller -- but even then, U.S. businesses were up in arms about President Bill Clinton's proposal to rescind most favorable nation status -- trade privileges -- in response to the massacre of pro-democracy protestors a few years earlier, in 1989.
    It's hard to imagine what going our "separate ways" with China would even look like in the 21st century.