Trump is taking a first step towards war with China

Tensions are rising between China and the US
Tensions are rising between China and the US - Nicolas Asfouri /AFP

If, as appears more likely than not, Donald Trump returns to the White House come January 20 2025, China will become America’s unmatched foreign policy priority. But the happy days of Trump’s red-carpet fetes in Beijing are long forgotten.

Today’s Trump has a personal animus toward China, placing heavy blame on Xi Jinping’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic for his loss in the 2020 presidential election. The presidential hopeful’s sympathy for populist trade policies has only grown since he left office, with him pledging to introduce massive new tariffs on Chinese imports to the US if re-elected. He’ll likely extend those tariffs to governments such as Mexico’s which act as intermediaries for Chinese trade flows. And while Republicans are divided over continued aid support for Ukraine, they enjoy near total unity in viewing China as a critical foreign policy concern.

Trump will prioritise personal loyalty as the preeminent concern in his future personnel appointments. Still, China will dictate his foreign policy agenda. It’s no surprise, then, that those names most frequently talked about as frontrunners for the position of Trump’s National Security advisor, Defense Secretary and Secretary of State are all hawkish on China. This is no peripheral consideration.

Most US military and intelligence analysts who watch China believe that Xi will launch an invasion of Taiwan before the year 2030. The great scale and varied capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army mean that a US victory against China is no certain thing. Indeed, some analysts believe US defeat is more likely than US victory. And while Trump has been unclear as to whether he would order a defense of the island democracy, the Republican foreign policy consensus believes he should do so.

This sentiment underlines the argument of those ideologically closest to Trump on trade and foreign policy issues, Senators such as JD Vance and Josh Hawley, that the US must heavily reprioritise its military capabilities away from Europe to the Pacific. Vance recently emphasised this point at the Munich Security Conference, even earning tentative praise from Labour’s shadow foreign secretary David Lammy who, while hardly eager for a US withdrawal from Europe, has pressed the need for Nato members to pay their fair share.

But whatever the degree of any shift to the Pacific, a second Trump presidency would certainly view aid to Ukraine as a far lesser security concern to those in the Pacific. In practical terms, Taiwan, the Philippines and Japan (Trump regards Japan very positively) would be far more likely to receive future supplies of weapons such as long range ATACMS missiles and Patriot air defense systems than would Ukraine. Senator Bill Hagerty, a former ambassador to Japan, could draw upon a vast network of regional contacts if rumours about his favourability in a second Trump administration are correct.

True, there may be odd discrepancies in Trump’s China policy. Take TikTok, for example. The Chinese Communist Party linked ByteDance firm’s ownership of TikTok means that the app has been used as an intelligence targeting and influence tool against US interests. This has led President Biden and a majority of Democrats and Republicans to support legislation to force ByteDance to divest itself of the app or see the platform banned in America.

But while Trump formerly supported such a ban, he recently shifted course after receiving the support of a major donor who owns a stake in TikTok. Trump’s inability to separate his personal interests from national interests will provide avenues for Beijing and other governments to manipulate him on certain issues.

Still, Trump’s 2024 foreign policy focus and that of the Republican Party aren’t in question. It’s China, stupid. Hence why, perhaps, France’s Emmanuel Macron is belatedly joining the United Kingdom and Poland in securing greater European support for Ukraine. America’s eyes are shifting eastward.