John Bolton: The Scandal of Trump’s China Policy
The president pleaded with Chinese leader Xi Jinping for
domestic political help
By John Bolton
June 18, 2020 "Information
Clearing House" -
U.S. strategy toward the People’s Republic of China
has rested for more than four decades on two basic
propositions. The first is that the Chinese economy
would be changed irreversibly by the rising prosperity
caused by market-oriented policies, greater foreign
investment, ever-deeper interconnections with global
markets and broader acceptance of international economic
norms. Bringing China into the World Trade Organization
in 2001 was the apotheosis of this assessment.
The second proposition is that, as China’s national
wealth increased, so too, inevitably, would its
political openness. As China became more democratic,
it would avoid competition for regional or global
hegemony, and the risk of international conflict—hot
or cold—would recede.
Both propositions were
fundamentally incorrect. After joining the WTO,
China did exactly the opposite of what was
predicted. China gamed the organization, pursuing a
mercantilist policy in a supposedly free-trade body.
China stole intellectual property, forced technology
transfers from foreign businesses and continued
managing its economy in authoritarian ways.
Politically, China moved away from democracy, not
toward it. In Xi Jinping, China now has its most
powerful leader and its most centralized government
since Mao Zedong. Ethnic and religious persecution
on a massive scale continues. Meanwhile, China has
created a formidable offensive cyberwarfare program,
built a blue-water navy for the first time in 500
years, increased its arsenal of nuclear weapons and
ballistic missiles, and more.
I saw these developments as a threat to U.S.
strategic interests and to our friends and allies.
The Obama administration basically sat back and
watched it happen.
President Donald Trump in some respects embodies
the growing U.S. concern about China. He appreciates
the key truth that politico-military power rests on
a strong economy. Trump frequently says that
stopping China’s unfair economic growth at America’s
expense is the best way to defeat China militarily,
which is fundamentally correct.
But the real question is what Trump does about
China’s threat. His advisers are badly fractured
intellectually. The administration has “panda huggers”
like Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin; confirmed
free-traders like National Economic Council Director
Larry Kudlow; and China hawks like Commerce Secretary
Wilbur Ross, lead trade negotiator Robert Lighthizer and
White House trade adviser Peter Navarro.
After I became Trump’s national security adviser in
April 2018, I had the most futile role of all: I wanted
to fit China trade policy into a broader strategic
framework. We had a good slogan, calling for a “free and
open Indo-Pacific” region. But a bumper sticker is not a
strategy, and we struggled to avoid being sucked into
the black hole of U.S.-China trade issues.
Trade matters were handled from day one in a
completely chaotic way. Trump’s favorite way to proceed
was to get small armies of people together, either in
the Oval Office or the Roosevelt Room, to argue out
these complex, controversial issues. Over and over
again, the same issues. Without resolution, or even
worse, one outcome one day and a contrary outcome a few
days later. The whole thing made my head hurt.
With the November 2018 midterm elections looming,
there was little progress on the China trade front.
Attention turned to the coming Buenos Aires G-20 summit
the following month, when Xi and Trump could meet
personally. Trump saw this as the meeting of his dreams,
with the two big guys getting together, leaving the
Europeans aside, cutting the big deal.
What could go wrong? Plenty, in Lighthizer’s view. He
was very worried about how much Trump would give away
In Buenos Aires on Dec. 1, at dinner, Xi began by
telling Trump how wonderful he was, laying it on thick.
Xi read steadily through note cards, doubtless all of it
hashed out arduously in advance. Trump ad-libbed, with
no one on the U.S. side knowing what he would say from
one minute to the next.
One highlight came when Xi said he wanted to work
with Trump for six more years, and Trump replied that
people were saying that the two-term constitutional
limit on presidents should be repealed for him. Xi said
the U.S. had too many elections, because he didn’t want
to switch away from Trump, who nodded approvingly.
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Xi finally shifted to substance, describing China’s
positions: The U.S. would roll back Trump’s existing
tariffs, and both parties would refrain from competitive
currency manipulation and agree not to engage in cyber
thievery (how thoughtful). The U.S. should eliminate
Trump’s tariffs, Xi said, or at least agree to forgo new
ones. “People expect this,” said Xi, and I feared at
that moment that Trump would simply say yes to
everything Xi had laid out.
Trump came close, unilaterally offering that U.S.
tariffs would remain at 10% rather than rise to 25%, as
he had previously threatened. In exchange, Trump asked
merely for some increases in Chinese farm-product
purchases, to help with the crucial farm-state vote. If
that could be agreed, all the U.S. tariffs would be
reduced. It was breathtaking.
Trump asked Lighthizer if he had left anything out,
and Lighthizer did what he could to get the conversation
back onto the plane of reality, focusing on the
structural issues and ripping apart the Chinese
proposal. Trump closed by saying Lighthizer would be in
charge of the deal-making, and Jared Kushner would also
be involved, at which point all the Chinese perked up
The decisive play came in May 2019, when the Chinese
reneged on several key elements of the emerging
agreement, including all the structural issues. For me,
this was proof that China simply wasn’t serious.
Trump spoke with Xi by phone on June 18, just over a
week ahead of the year’s G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan,
where they would next meet. Trump began by telling Xi he
missed him and then said that the most popular thing he
had ever been involved with was making a trade deal with
China, which would be a big plus for him politically.
In their meeting in Osaka on June
29, Xi told Trump that the U.S.-China relationship
was the most important in the world. He said that
some (unnamed) American political figures were
making erroneous judgments by calling for a new cold
war with China.
Whether Xi meant to finger the Democrats or some of
us sitting on the U.S. side of the table, I don’t know,
but Trump immediately assumed that Xi meant the
Democrats. Trump said approvingly that there was great
hostility to China among the Democrats. Trump then,
stunningly, turned the conversation to the coming U.S.
presidential election, alluding to China’s economic
capability and pleading with Xi to ensure he’d win. He
stressed the importance of farmers and increased Chinese
purchases of soybeans and wheat in the electoral
outcome. I would print Trump’s exact words, but the
government’s prepublication review process has decided
Trump then raised the trade negotiations’ collapse
the previous month, urging China to return to the
positions it had retracted and conclude the most
exciting, largest deal ever. He proposed that for the
remaining $350 billion of trade imbalances (by Trump’s
arithmetic), the U.S. would not impose tariffs, but he
again returned to importuning Xi to buy as many American
farm products as China could.
Xi agreed that we should restart the trade talks,
welcoming Trump’s concession that there would be no new
tariffs and agreeing that the two negotiating teams
should resume discussions on farm products on a priority
basis. “You’re the greatest Chinese leader in 300
years!” exulted Trump, amending that a few minutes later
to “the greatest leader in Chinese history.”
Subsequent negotiations after I resigned did lead to
an interim “deal” announced in December 2019, but there
was less to it than met the eye.
Trump’s conversations with Xi reflected not only the
incoherence in his trade policy but also the confluence
in Trump’s mind of his own political interests and U.S.
national interests. Trump commingled the personal and
the national not just on trade questions but across the
whole field of national security. I am hard-pressed to
identify any significant Trump decision during my White
House tenure that wasn’t driven by re-election
Take Trump’s handling of the threats posed by the
Chinese telecommunications firms Huawei and ZTE. Ross
and others repeatedly pushed to strictly enforce U.S.
regulations and criminal laws against fraudulent
conduct, including both firms’ flouting of U.S.
sanctions against Iran and other rogue states. The most
important goal for Chinese “companies” like Huawei and
ZTE is to infiltrate telecommunications and
information-technology systems, notably 5G, and subject
them to Chinese control (though both companies, of
course, dispute the U.S. characterization of their
Trump, by contrast, saw this not as a policy issue to
be resolved but as an opportunity to make personal
gestures to Xi. In 2018, for example, he reversed
penalties that Ross and the Commerce Department had
imposed on ZTE. In 2019, he offered to reverse criminal
prosecution against Huawei if it would help in the trade
deal—which, of course, was primarily about getting Trump
re-elected in 2020.
These and innumerable other similar conversations
with Trump formed a pattern of fundamentally
unacceptable behavior that eroded the very legitimacy of
the presidency. Had Democratic impeachment advocates not
been so obsessed with their Ukraine blitzkrieg in 2019,
had they taken the time to inquire more systematically
about Trump’s behavior across his entire foreign policy,
the impeachment outcome might well have been different.
As the trade talks went on, Hong Kong’s
dissatisfaction over China’s bullying had been growing.
An extradition bill provided the spark, and by early
June 2019, massive protests were under way in Hong Kong.
I first heard Trump react on June 12, upon hearing
that some 1.5 million people had been at Sunday’s
demonstrations. “That’s a big deal,” he said. But he
immediately added, “I don’t want to get involved,” and,
“We have human-rights problems too.”
I hoped Trump would see these Hong Kong developments
as giving him leverage over China. I should have known
better. That same month, on the 30th anniversary of
China’s massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in
Tiananmen Square, Trump refused to issue a White House
statement. “That was 15 years ago,” he said,
inaccurately. “Who cares about it? I’m trying to make a
deal. I don’t want anything.” And that was that.
Beijing’s repression of its Uighur citizens also
proceeded apace. Trump asked me at the 2018 White House
Christmas dinner why we were considering sanctioning
China over its treatment of the Uighurs, a largely
Muslim people who live primarily in China’s northwest
At the opening dinner of the Osaka G-20 meeting in
June 2019, with only interpreters present, Xi had
explained to Trump why he was basically building
concentration camps in Xinjiang. According to our
interpreter, Trump said that Xi should go ahead with
building the camps, which Trump thought was exactly the
right thing to do. The National Security Council’s top
Asia staffer, Matthew Pottinger, told me that Trump said
something very similar during his November 2017 trip to
Trump was particularly dyspeptic about Taiwan, having
listened to Wall Street financiers who had gotten rich
off mainland China investments. One of Trump’s favorite
comparisons was to point to the tip of one of his
Sharpies and say, “This is Taiwan,” then point to the
historic Resolute desk in the Oval Office and say, “This
is China.” So much for American commitments and
obligations to another democratic ally.
More thunder out of China came in 2020 with the
coronavirus pandemic. China withheld, fabricated and
distorted information about the disease; suppressed
dissent from physicians and others; hindered efforts by
the World Health Organization and others to get accurate
information; and engaged in active disinformation
campaigns, trying to argue that the new coronavirus did
not originate in China.
There was plenty to criticize in Trump’s response,
starting with the administration’s early, relentless
assertion that the disease was “contained” and would
have little or no economic effect. Trump’s reflex to try
to talk his way out of anything, even a public-health
crisis, only undercut his and the nation’s credibility,
with his statements looking more like political damage
control than responsible public-health advice.
Other criticisms of the administration, however, were
frivolous. One such complaint targeted part of the
general streamlining of NSC staffing I conducted in my
first months at the White House. To reduce duplication
and overlap and enhance coordination and efficiency, it
made good management sense to shift the responsibilities
of the NSC directorate dealing with global health and
biodefense into the directorate dealing with biological,
chemical and nuclear weapons. Bioweapon attacks and
pandemics can have much in common, and the medical and
public-health expertise required to deal with both
threats goes hand in hand. Most of the personnel working
in the prior global health directorate simply moved to
the combined directorate and continued doing exactly
what they were doing before.
At most, the internal NSC structure was the quiver of
a butterfly’s wings in the tsunami of Trump’s chaos.
Despite the indifference at the top of the White House,
the cognizant NSC staffers did their duty in the
pandemic, raising options like shutdowns and social
distancing far before Trump did so in March. The NSC
biosecurity team functioned exactly as it was supposed
to. It was the chair behind the Resolute desk that was
In today’s pre-2020 election climate, Trump has made
a sharp turn to anti-China rhetoric. Frustrated in his
search for the big China trade deal, and mortally afraid
of the negative political effects of the coronavirus
pandemic on his re-election prospects, Trump has now
decided to blame China, with ample justification.
Whether his actions will match his words remains to be
seen. His administration has signaled that Beijing’s
suppression of dissent in Hong Kong will have
consequences, but no actual consequences have yet been
Most important of all, will Trump’s current China
pose last beyond election day? The Trump presidency is
not grounded in philosophy, grand strategy or policy. It
is grounded in Trump. That is something to think about
for those, especially China realists, who believe they
know what he will do in a second term.
—Mr. Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the
U.N., served as national security adviser from April
2018 to September 2019. This essay is adapted from his
forthcoming book, “The Room Where It Happened: A White
House Memoir,” which Simon & Schuster will publish on
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