A China hand and former Treasury Department colleague told me before the 2016 election that officials in Beijing preferred Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton because they thought Mr. Trump would be an easier negotiator.
Yet Mr. Trump has proved to be anything but—and in ways that ill serve U.S. interests. Through a series of vacillating threats and entreaties that often seem to be decided on a whim, he has shown President Xi Jinping that he is an unreliable negotiator. Mr. Trump’s public bullying makes it hard for Mr. Xi to accept any deal while saving face, which is very important to the Chinese. Thus Mr. Xi is no longer earnestly negotiating, merely going through the motions.
The new buzzword in Washington discussions of Sino-U.S. negotiations is “decoupling.” From the Trump administration’s perspective, they are threatening Beijing with the prospect of disentangling the U.S. and China entirely and creating two distinct economic systems, similar to the bipolar world of the Cold War. Many in Mr. Trump’s orbit believe that blocking China’s access to U.S. technology would thwart China’s attempts to surpass the U.S. on the world stage.
This approach is naive and probably counterproductive. It is accelerating rather than slowing the Made in 2025 program. Mr. Xi has jettisoned Deng Xiaoping ’s established strategy: “Hide your strength, bide your time, never take the lead.” From his perspective, decoupling is not only an American threat—it’s the new Chinese strategy.
Nowhere is this more evident than Huawei’s case. The Trump administration has temporarily cut off most transactions between U.S. companies and Huawei, and China hawks are pushing the president to make this decoupling permanent. Meanwhile, Mr. Trump dangles access to American-made components as leverage to get Mr. Xi to buy American soybeans. But Mr. Xi does not appear interested in tactical détente as he was last year, when he asked Mr. Trump to save ZTE, the other prominent Chinese telecommunications firm. Instead of giving in to Mr. Trump’s demands, Huawei recently introduced its own operating system, Harmony, an alternative to Android that will reduce Huawei’s reliance on U.S. technology.
I do not contend that China is benign or even that Mr. Trump has misdiagnosed the problem. Rather, my concern is that the president’s erratic approach has aggravated the situation by encouraging Mr. Xi to embrace decoupling on his own terms. After more than two decades of globalization, severing the integrated supply lines of the world’s two largest economies will necessarily be messy. For the U.S., Mr. Trump’s approach makes it even messier.