The Bull in a China Shop

Image Credit: David Horsey / Los Angeles Times


Imagine you are good friends of a couple, Tim and Chia, who own a large house and the business in town where you do a lot of shopping. Now imagine that the couple begins fighting and decides to separate and remain on the property, Chia lives in the large house and Tim in a smaller guest house on the property. Since Tim is a good friend, you decide to help Tim with his attorney’s fees and, because of your history with the couple, you agree with Tim that he should be the sole owner of the entire estate, even though he now lives in the guest house. Soon Chia approaches you and says that if you just acknowledge them as the rightful owner of the entire estate, they’ll allow you to shop at their store again, and they’ll even buy products from you to sell in the store.The deal never said you had to stop paying Tim’s attorney’s fees, and Chia turns a blind eye to it; what’s more is that Tim has even begun to make a killing on a home business and is doing better than ever. So everyone is better off, you’re shopping at your favorite store, you’re selling to Chia’s store, Chia has a good customer, and Tim is richer than he ever was when he was with Chia, and what’s best is that Tim and Chia’s loud arguments that would wake the neighborhood up have ended. Now your child is getting ready to take over the business, and seeing how much you buy from Chia decides they want to bring up the estate issue again with Tim so he can get more discounts from Chia’s store. On the one hand, your kid has a point – you are really buying a lot from Chia and money has been starting to get tight. On the other, is it really worth stepping back into this divisive exchange, and potentially getting cut off from Chia’s store again, just to squeeze some more cash out of the deal?

Now, the above scenario did not happen. However, it serves as an analogy, though imperfect, for what President-elect Donald Trump has been saying and doing in regards to US-China relations (with Tim as Taiwan, Chia as China, and the you being the US). Since his December 2nd conversation with Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen, during which Mr. Trump reportedly received congratulations on his election victory, Mr. Trump has continued to ratchet up tensions with China by making statements more hostile to China and its territorial integrity than any since the Nixon Administration reopened relations with China. In response, Beijing has taken steps to reassert the importance of the US following their One China policy (a policy that holds that China is one country that officially includes Taiwan despite Beijing not exercising direct control over the island) ranging from the normal statement at a press conference and meeting with Trump transition members involved with foreign policy [1] all the way to flying a nuclear bomber over the South China Sea as a reminder of the real world risk of destroying the US-Chinese relationship [2]. In a December 11 interview with Fox News, Trump stated that he understood what the One China policy was. However, he did not feel that the US should be beholden to the policy, stating “I fully understand the One-China policy. But I don’t know why we have to be bound by a One-China policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade.” [3] This is all fitting within Donald Trump’s basic stated ideology of “America First”, which involves increasing American economic and military strength as well as making “America respected again”. [4] Which is also supported by Mr. Trump’s statements regarding small incidents with China, such as his insistence that President Obama boycott the G20 summit over China’s forgetting to bring a proper staircase so that the President could get off Air Force One. [5] Additionally, in response to China’s seizure of a US underwater drone in the disputed South China Sea, Mr. Trump took to twitter to express outrage at the incident and responded to the news of China’s intention to return the drone with “We should let them keep it”. [6][7] Meanwhile, his communications director seemed to imply in a tweet that the President Elect had something to do with its return. [8]

All of these major and minor disputes bring us to the crux of the issue. President-elect Trump’s “America First” policy could lead us to destroying international relationships, and it seems to be doing just that. His blunt pursuit of relationships that have direct benefits for the US is creating a vendetta between maintaining current international relationships and straining or breaking them in an attempt to use them for immediate financial gain.

As with all things, there are pros and cons to different policy options. The current global order, established by the Allies after World War II and cemented after the fall of the Soviet Union, is largely held together by international institutions like NATO, the UN, the European Union, and World Trade Organization, which the US is a part of or are heavily influenced by US policy. The commitments taken by the United States also have direct benefits for American consumers such as:

  • Trade policies that have decreased poverty in much of Asia while allowing American consumers to enjoy lower prices on consumer goods.
  • A robust military/diplomatic policy that has kept the number of large scale wars to a minimum, both in Europe and East Asia. It has also ensured the free flow of energy, largely oil, to the global market, reducing transportation costs and thus the cost of consumer goods.

But these policies have their tradeoffs:

  • Trade policies have also harmed Americans working in industries that are easily outsourced, such as manufacturing. Likewise, they have hurt farmers in other countries whose crops cannot compete with low-cost, subsidized, American agriculture.
  • The near omnipresence of the US military across the globe is expensive and has engendered resentment by supporting dictators and emboldening terror groups

On the other hand, President-elect Trump’s “America First” policy aims to benefit Americans by:

  • Renegotiating trade policy, especially with China, to be more beneficial to American manufacturing by leveraging the legal recognition of Taiwan for concessions from Beijing on currency manipulation, local taxes and tariffs on American goods.
  • Restoring the US military and global respect for the United States by ending the sequestration budget cuts to the military, increasing troop numbers, and not backing down from slights, both perceived and actual.

However, because the campaign was light on specific policy, any implications of “America First” can only be seen in light of his statements and tweets during and after the election, and they have tradeoffs as well:

  • If Mr. Trump is serious about using our recognition of “One China” in future trade negotiations with China, it could upend decades of relations between Washington and Beijing. A trade war between the two countries would lead to price spikes and the resulting recession from decreased consumer spending would create job losses on both sides of the Pacific. It’s also impossible to predict the economic fallout worldwide from China calling in the massive US debt owed them or the impact increased Chinese military activity will have on the region.
  • With the US military budget at roughly 16% of the total budget, Trump’s further increases to military spending will come at the expense of either taxpayers or social programs.
  • Mr. Trump’s suggestions that the US should have “kept the oil” in Iraq would require a military occupation and the construction of supporting infrastructure for the occupation and extraction of oil. This would, in essence, be a revival of the 19th and 20th century colonialism that would only increase resentment for the US and act as a lightning rod for jihadist propaganda.
  • Moreover, Trump publicly reacting and/or retaliating to every slight, real (Saudi Arabia not having a high level official greet Obama in Riyadh) and imagined (China not having the proper staircase for Airforce One at the G20 conference), could create diplomatic chaos, increase the difficulty of negotiations, and make the President seem too sensitive to deal with in good faith.

It is for these reasons why I titled this piece “the Bull in a China Shop”, not specifically because as the phrase implies, that a bull is destined to destroy much of the merchandise, but to emphasize the delicate nature of the US-China relationship, as well as global diplomacy in general. Every president is the Bull from the second they are inaugurated, the goal of the presidency then, is to navigate the shop without making rash movements that can destroy the store. If Mr. Trump is to successfully navigate that shop, it is incumbent on we the people to take what steps we can to keep him steady.

Direct action like protesting his proposed military build up and support for the nearly $1 trillion nuclear arsenal renewal is one way. Another way to get involved is to demand Congress reassert its authority to check the President if he makes radical changes on foreign policy. With Donald Trump’s cabinet appointments becoming known, it is important that those who don’t support diplomatic escalation contact their representatives and demand that Congress reassert its authority on foreign policy matters. While it is true that the Constitution gives the president a lot of latitude in setting his/her own foreign policy, Congress does have the authority and duty to prevent the President from using that power recklessly. It can for instance, refuse to appropriate funds to establish an embassy in Taiwan or reject his attempt at establishing tariffs on Chinese made goods. So if you wish to maintain the foreign policy structure that has allowed the United States to enjoy its high standard of living, it is important that you reach out to your congressperson and demand that they begin to reassert Congressional authority on foreign policy.





Markose Butler is a Policy Corner Writer for PVNN. He earned his Bachelor's degree in Government and International Relations from the University of Texas in Austin and a M.A. in International Studies. He is also an insurance professional based in Los Angeles. As a political junkie, he likes discussing a variety of issues ranging from the election to the most arcane policy debates. As a writer, he is focused on issues of war and peace, sustainable economic development, and civil rights justice (especially racial and LGBT justice). Markose ordinarily writes from a progressive viewpoint incorporating data, history, and socioeconomic context into his work. As a situational ethicist, he considers himself more of a pragmatic progressive and is interested a practical political solutions to policy priorities.