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Special report: How U.S. policy toward China transformed under Trump

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.

By the numbers: 2020's whole-of-government approach

Photo Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photos: Alex Wong/Getty Images and Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

In 2020, the Trump administration took at least 210 public actions related to China that spanned at least 10 departments, according to publicly available data, demonstrating what the administration calls a "whole-of-government" strategy.

Why it matters: The full impact of such an enormous number of actions taken in such a short period of time has not yet been felt — leaving the Biden administration with the huge task of sorting through these new policies.

  • 22 actions by the Justice Department, including indictments and arrests.
  • 60 actions by the State Department, including visa restrictions, travel advisories, diplomatic actions and public statements.
  • 27 actions by the White House, including executive orders, signing bills into laws and the signing of the Phase One trade agreement.
  • 23 actions by the Defense Department, including freedom of navigation operations, Taiwan Strait transits, and the release of reports and other information.
  • 16 actions by the Department of Homeland Security, including blocking the import of items made through forced labor and the release of reports and statements.
  • 24 actions by the Treasury Department, including sanctions.
  • 13 actions by the Commerce Department, including export controls, additions to the entities list and advisories.
  • 3 actions by the U.S. Trade Representative's office, including the release of reports and a public statement.
  • 2 actions by the Energy Department, including designating China as a "foreign adversary."
  • 2 actions by the Export-Import Bank of the United States.
  • 6 actions by the Federal Communications Commission, including designating Huawei and ZTE as national security threats.
  • 1 action by the Agriculture Department, an interim report on agricultural trade with China.
  • 1 action by the National Security Agency, a cybersecurity advisory regarding China-linked cyber actors.
  • 1 action by the Education Department, a letter sent to university officials regarding Confucius Institutes.
  • 2 actions by the Labor Department, including a letter and a list of goods made with forced labor.

Some actions have been criticized as counterproductive and damaging to U.S. values, such as restrictions placed on Chinese journalists and the U.S. withdrawal from the World Health Organization, in part due to China's influence over the organization.

In 2020, the Trump administration also levied sanctions on 90 Chinese entities or individuals, comprising 11.5% of total U.S. sanctions designations last year, according to data compiled by the Center for a New American Security.

What they're saying

A senior administration official with knowledge of the Trump administration's China strategy told me that China's coercive economic practices and the unique threats it posed to U.S. national security interests and values required new thinking:

  • "The U.S. had to step out in front and take some actions that were perceived as extreme. It’s not establishment Washington thinking."

The results: "I think we were proved to be correct in many ways. You can impose economic costs on China without the world falling apart. China has been extremely restrained in its retaliation. The U.S. as the world’s largest economy had to take the lead and show that the world isn’t going to end."

Looking to the Biden administration: "I think this is good momentum for the next team to come in," said the official.

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