President Trump began his term by launching the trade war with China he had promised on the campaign trail. By mid-2020, however, Trump was no longer the public face of China policy-making as he became increasingly consumed with domestic troubles, giving his top aides carte blanche to pursue a cascade of tough-on-China policies.
Why it matters: Trump alone did not reshape the China relationship. But his trade war shattered global norms, paving the way for administration officials to pursue policies that just a few years earlier would have been unthinkable.
- Trump-era China policy often featured two separate tracks: policies Trump personally led, and policies spearheaded by officials with China expertise.
- In some cases, Trump's own actions worked against the stated objectives of his China-focused national security staff — most notably Trump's disparaging attitude toward allies and his prioritizing of trade negotiations over sanctions.
Here's a timeline of the evolution of U.S. policy toward China under Trump:
Late 2016: A surprising election result leaves many guessing what turn U.S.-China relations might take. Initially, there are concerns that, despite his tough campaign rhetoric regarding China's trade practices, President Trump might cozy up to Chinese President Xi Jinping.
- But an early December 2016 phone call between the president-elect and Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen — the first such direct contact between the top U.S. and Taiwanese leaders since at least 1979 — swiftly reformulates expectations and foreshadows the Trump administration's diplomatic iconoclasm.
2017: A trade war and little else. As promised, Trump levies tariffs on billions of dollars of Chinese goods, sparking a trade war that stretches on for most of Trump's presidency.
2018: A whole-of-government approach begins to take shape.
- The National Security Strategy's Indo-Pacific framework is approved in early 2018, and a Trump-era China strategy begins to emerge.
- U.S. Pacific Command changes its name to Indo-Pacific Command in a move seen as aimed at countering China's rise.
- The Department of Justice launches its China Initiative, an effort to disrupt China's covert activities in the U.S.
2019: The U.S. gets tougher, with some guardrails.
- Secretary of State Mike Pompeo becomes a leading figure in the U.S. push against China, publicly accusing the Chinese Communist Party of seeking "international domination."
- Trump's desire to seal a trade deal with China, however, prevented administration officials from pursuing sanctions on Chinese officials deemed complicit in human rights abuses.
2020: All bets are off. The year reshapes many aspects of the U.S.-China relationship.
- After years of tariffs and negotiations, the Phase One trade deal is signed in January, giving President Trump a PR-ready "win."
- But after the coronavirus outbreak, Trump embraces blaming China as a way to deflect the blame from his own administration's failures to effectively address the rising number of cases stateside. His racially tinged invocation of the "China virus" exacerbates anti-Chinese racism, as attacks against Asian Americans rise around the country.
- With a trade deal signed and a new grudge against China, Trump lifts the floodgates, allowing staff across agencies to push through long-desired actions on China-related issues across the board.
- With Trump conspicuously absent from China policy-making, Pompeo becomes the public face of America's China policy.