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Trump’s China policy has no strategy — except to boost his reelection campaign

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Trump ChinaTHE UNITED STATES should be leading democratic nations in resisting China’s tightening totalitarianism and escalating belligerence. Instead, President Trump is pursuing a reckless, incoherent and unilateral offensive against Beijing that appears designed to boost his reelection campaign, not manage the complicated challenge posed by the regime of Xi Jinping.

The State Department’s abrupt order shutting down the Chinese Consulate in Houston this week is a case study in Mr. Trump’s counterproductivity. It will inevitably lead to the permanent closure of a comparable U.S. mission in China — probably in Wuhan, where the covid-19 epidemic originated. That will reduce channels of communication and diminish U.S. understanding of China’s domestic situation, while doing next to nothing to address the offensive activities of the Xi regime, from its crackdown in Hong Kong to its attempts to spy on Americans and steal U.S. technology.

U.S. officials are describing the Houston consulate as a nest of espionage activities, though they have offered no evidence to back that up. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo portrayed the closure as sending a message: “We are setting out clear expectations for how the Chinese Communist Party is going to behave, and when they don’t, we’re going to take actions that protect the American people, protect our security, our national security, and also protect our economy and jobs.”

That’s good campaign rhetoric — but closing consulates won’t accomplish those aims. Most Chinese hacking and spying is directed from China, not Houston. Many of the other measures Mr. Trump has taken, from imposing tariffs on U.S.-China trade to restricting student visas, have damaged the U.S. economy and cost jobs without changing Chinese behavior.

Mr. Trump’s crusade — including racist references to the “Chinese virus” and “kung flu” — would be more plausible if it did not represent an abrupt, election-season U-turn. Until March, Mr. Trump was publicly praising Mr. Xi as a great leader, including in his response to the coronavirus. In private, Mr. Trump reportedly begged the Chinese ruler for help with his reelection campaign while approving of Mr. Xi’s crackdowns in Hong Kong and on the Uighurs of Xinjiang province. In the trade deal he struck with Mr. Xi in January, Mr. Trump gave up demands for meaningful reforms in China’s trade practices in pursuit of pre-election soybean purchases from Midwestern farmers.

The president has since come to see greater electoral benefit in blaming Beijing for the spread of covid-19 while portraying opponent Joe Biden as a Chinese puppet. Some of the resulting flurry of measures are worthy, if long overdue: Under heavy pressure from Congress, the administration finally imposed sanctions on officials and companies involved in the Xinjiang and Hong Kong crackdowns.

Yet this in no way represents a cogent strategy for countering Mr. Xi’s ambition to spread China’s model of dictatorship around the world and forcibly silence critics at home and abroad. That would require coordination with U.S. allies — such as Germany, South Korea and Japan, which Mr. Trump instead threatens with trade wars or the withdrawal of U.S. troops. It would mean reviving the Trans-Pacific Partnership on trade. And it would require leaving open channels for diplomacy with Beijing to address issues such as North Korea’s growing nuclear arsenal and global warming. Closing consulates will achieve none of that.

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