Beginning with his surprise call to Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen in December 2016 and continuing through his resumption of U.S. Navy freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea the following year, his tariffs on Chinese goods in 2018, his and his administration’s rhetorical barrage against China beginning in earnest in 2019, and culminating in his multiple actions against China this year, from limiting travel to canceling visas to forcing the sale of TikTok to tightening the vise on Huawei to selling an additional $7 billion in arms to Taiwan, Trump has reoriented America’s approach to the People’s Republic. No longer is China encouraged to be a “responsible stakeholder.” It is recognized as a great-power competitor.
Resistance to this proper understanding of China’s position in the international system remains strong. But it is unquestionably the case that both Republicans and Democrats are starting to see China more as a threat than a partner. And it is Donald Trump who is behind this clarification of vision. (Xi Jinping and the pandemic helped too.) Whatever a President Biden might do about China—and he seems far more interested in repairing our alliances in “Old Europe” than in tackling this paramount challenge of the 21st century—he would operate within the constraints Trump established and on the intellectual terrain Trump landscaped.
There is no greater measure of presidential significance than a chief executive’s ability to transform not just his own but also the opposing party.