Trump's picking a fight with China he cannot afford to lose

Story highlights

  • Leonard: As the balance of economic power shifts, China has eclipsed the US as a trade partner and source of investment
  • Making America great again? To Trump it apparently means making others do badly

Mark Leonard is the director of the European Council on Foreign Relations and author of the book "What Does China Think?" The opinions here belong to the author.

(CNN)He hasn't even taken office yet and Donald Trump has already launched a war of words against China.

Exhibiting classic alpha-male behavior, the President-elect has picked a fight with the biggest adversary in the geopolitical playground. On December 3 he took a congratulatory phone call from Tsai Ing-wen, referring to her in a tweet as "the President of Taiwan."
US diplomatic formulation for Taiwan's leader is "the president on Taiwan," a small but crucial linguistic difference specifically designed to uphold the US' "one China" policy, which pretends that Taiwan and mainland China are one country.
Trump's advisers later confirmed that neither the call nor the formulation were a mishap. A day later, Trump attacked China -- again on Twitter -- for devaluing their currency and building "a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea." His foreign policy philosophy may follow the credo of the American novelist Gore Vidal: "It's not enough that I should succeed, others should fail!"
Making America great again apparently means making others do badly. But will it work?
The one thing one could expect from a businessman like Trump is that he would run the numbers on the problem. They look challenging. For a decade, China has been growing faster than the US. In currency terms, US GDP in 2000 was 8.5 times that of China. In 2016 the difference has shrunk to less than 1.5 times. At this rate China will have overtaken the US in ten years (and it already has if you calculate GDP using purchasing power parity, which factors in the comparative value of money in different countries).
As the balance of economic power has shifted, China has eclipsed the United States as a trade partner and source of investment -- not just in Asia but across Africa, the Middle East, Eurasia and even in the Western Hemisphere. On the back of its economic growth, China has been dramatically increasing its defense spending while shifting its focus from territorial defense towards power projection.
Between 2010 and 2020 China's defense budget is set to double to $233 billion -- more than all the Western European Union countries spend combined.
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The American foreign policy community has developed a three-legged approach to slow this power shift towards Beijing.
First, it focused on developing an American economic answer to the Chinese juggernaut. This was called the Transpacific Partnership TPP, a trade agreement with the Pacific Rim countries that deliberately excluded China.
The second pillar aims to re-energize security alliances with democratic countries in Asia -- such as Japan, Korea, India and Australia -- who oppose the idea of a China-centric Asia.
Third, the US has tried to shape China's behavior by integrating it into multilateral institutions which could constrain its actions, such as the WTO or the G20.
But Donald Trump -- even as he launches his confrontation with Beijing -- has turned his back on all three of these approaches. During the election campaign, he rejected the TPP and has now announced that he won't sign the deal.
This leaves the door wide open for the China-backed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a rival pact that excludes the United States and which has become the frontrunner for new free trade deals in the region.
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Trump has also alienated the United States' Asian allies on security issues, advising Japan and Korea to get their own nuclear weapons and to not rely on an American security umbrella. And he has shown nothing but disdain for the global liberal economic order and the institutions on which it is based.
There have been ups and down with all of the foreign policy community's strategies for dealing with China's rise. It is not clear how successful the TPP would have been, and it may not have survived in a Hillary Clinton presidency.
Attempts to pivot US troops and resources to Asia have struggled against the pull of the Middle East and Syria. And on the China-shaping strategy, the verdict is still out on whether China has been changed by global institutions or whether an increasingly powerful Beijing is in fact changing them. But at least the US' attempts amounted to a strategy.
That is more than can be said for President-elect Trump's alternative of tweeting his way to American greatness.