Opinion | To Deal With China, Trump Should Learn German

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If Joe Biden is elected president, his top foreign policy challenge will be China — but not the China that he dealt with under Barack Obama. It will be a much more aggressive China, a China looking to supplant American technology dominance, smother democracy in Hong Kong and cybersteal your personal data. Pushing back on that China, without blowing up the global trading system, will require reversing one of Donald Trump’s biggest mistakes — his failure to build a partnership with Germany to counter Beijing.

Yes, you read that right. The Cold War with the Soviet Union was fought and won in Berlin. And the looming Cold War with China — over trade, technology and global influence — will be fought and won in Berlin.

As Berlin goes, so goes Germany, and as Germany goes, so goes the European Union, the world’s biggest single market. And whichever country — the United States or China — is able to leverage the European Union on its side in the competition for whose technology standards, trade rules and technology will prevail will set the rules for global digital commerce in the 21st century.

“The reason that the United States was on the winning side of the three great conflicts of the 20th century — World War I, World War II and the Cold War,’’ said Michael Mandelbaum, author of “The Rise and Fall of Peace on Earth,” “is that we were part of the strongest coalition. The World War I coalition we joined belatedly. The World War II coalition we joined less belatedly. The Cold War coalition to defeat the Soviet Union, we organized. This should have been the model for dealing with China.’’

If we make this a story of America acting against China alone — with the goal of making America, and only America, great again — we lose. If we make this a story of the world versus China on what are the right and fair rules of 21st-century commerce — we can bend Beijing our way.

Trump had to impose billions of dollars in taxes on U.S. imports from China — and force U.S. farmers to live with China’s retaliation of curtailed American agriculture purchases — just to compel China to promise to buy more American goods. But he still did not secure a sustained opening of China’s economy for truly reciprocal commerce.

As The Times reported Tuesday, “Since signing the deal, China has taken steps to open its markets to American banks and farmers, but its purchases of American products are far behind’’ — more than 50 percent — “its promise to buy an additional $200 billion by the end of next year.’’

Trump has been tougher on China than any previous president, and rightly so in my view. As a friend of mine who does business in China likes to say: Trump is not the American president America deserves, but he is the American president China deserves.

But I prefer not to use the term “China.’’ I prefer “1.3 billion people who speak Chinese.’’ Because the behavior of those 1.3 billion Chinese speakers, whose economy is growing very dynamically, is not easily modified by 328 million Americans operating on Trump’s America-First-America-Alone strategy.

Which is why I thought it was a huge mistake for Trump to be simultaneously hammering China and bashing Germany over European Union auto tariffs and Berlin’s lagging military spending. Trump should have prioritized a partnership with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany — also known as “the Chancellor of Europe’’ — who is as concerned about China’s bullying as we are.

Germany has a small army that would be useless in a shooting war against Russia, but it is a manufacturing superpower that would be a decisive ally in a trade war against China.

“We share your grievances with China, but why has Trump never tried to address them with your European allies?’’ a veteran German diplomat asked me.

Now Trump is also punishing Germany by bringing home some of our troops there. The result? Pew Research reported in May that in 2019, Germans prioritized their country’s relationship with the United States over that with China, 50 percent to 24 percent. Today, 37 percent of Germans prioritize their country’s relationship with the United States and 36 percent prioritize relations with China.

So, do the math: On taking office, Trump tore up the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, which set the rules for free trade in the 21st century in line with U.S. interests and was supported by the 12 biggest Pacific economies — excluding China. And now he’s weakening ties with Germany.

Then, in the middle of all of this, Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, gave a speech declaring that “securing our freedoms from the Chinese Communist Party is the mission of our time,” therefore it is also time “for a new grouping of like-minded nations, a new alliance of democracies’’ to deter China.

“If the free world doesn’t change,” Pompeo went on, “Communist China will surely change us.”

That speech left me speechless. It’s hard to have an alliance without allies.

If managing Communist China is, truly, “the mission of our time,” then wouldn’t you set aside nickel-and-dime complaints about German defense spending aimed at Russia — a third-rate power best known for selling vodka, caviar and oil and gas — to enlist the whole European Union on our side?

It is true that the E.U. countries are wary of getting caught in the crossfire between Washington and Beijing — or of having to choose between an American or a Chinese technology ecosystem. Nevertheless, last year the European Union labeled China a “systemic rival’’ — much to the chagrin of the Chinese, who are currently trying to divide and buy off Eastern Europe from its Western brethren.

The thing China fears most is the one thing Trump refused to build — a united coalition that includes the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the United States and the European Union, built around Washington and Berlin.

The economist Tyler Cowen put it well on Bloomberg View the other day: The Trump China hawks “were right about everything, except how to deal with China.’’

The great grand strategy chess move of the 1970s was Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger building an alliance between China and America to contain the Soviet Union. The great grand strategy chess move today is building an alliance between the United States and Germany to counterbalance China.

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