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‘Maniacal’ focus on China puts Trump aide out of mainstream

Updated: 
August 18, 2017 - 3:09am

WASHINGTON — White House adviser Steve Bannon isn’t alone in pondering America’s possibly generation-defining question about China’s emerging superpower status — but his call for an “economic war” puts him far outside the mainstream.

In an interview reflecting on some of his big-thinking projects, Bannon said the country should be “maniacally focused” on a confrontation with Beijing over who will be the global “hegemon” of the next 25 to 30 years. The former Breitbart News executive — who works steps from President Donald Trump in the West Wing — told The American Prospect that “the economic war with China is everything.”

For decades, American economists, military strategists and policymakers of all stripes have wrestled with how the United States and China, the world’s biggest and soon-to-be biggest economies, manage differences on trade and security. But no one in a position of power has adopted a strategy that entails the almost messianic zeal of Bannon’s world view.

For good reason, according to advocates of more measured approaches to dealing with China, who argue that an economic war would hurt everyone.

“Steve Bannon’s view is too simplistic and arrogant,” Seattle trade attorney William Perry declared, saying such talk “could get the U.S. in big trouble.” He said Bannon’s position is “built around the idea that the United States is the biggest market in the world and everybody has to kowtow to us.”

Bannon’s comments do reflect sentiments Trump himself has channeled on narrowing America’s vast trade deficit with China and bringing manufacturing jobs back home. They also underscore the ways in which the U.S. administration is in conflict with itself on China and other foreign policy issues.

Bannon was stunningly candid about purging rivals from the Defense and State departments who supposedly resist the tough trade line with China. And he contradicted Trump by calling his boss’ bluff on threatening to attack North Korea, saying there is no military solution to the nuclear standoff.

Bannon characterized the focus on North Korea as a “sideshow” to a more significant, U.S.-Chinese struggle for world control.

Past U.S. administrations, Republican and Democrat, have cooperated with China since it initiated market-opening reforms more than three decades ago. The Clinton administration, for example, supported China’s World Trade Organization entry in 2001.

But as China’s economic and military might has grown, hopes it would open its markets and play by WTO rules like other rising economies have receded. U.S. views have hardened.

While American consumers have benefited from cheaper Chinese-made goods, the imports have caused massive U.S. trade deficits. Last year, for instance, America’s trade gap in goods with China was $347 billion. That represented nearly half the U.S. trade deficit with the entire world.

Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Zurich and the University of California, San Diego, found the U.S. lost 2.4 million jobs from 1999 to 2011 because of Chinese import competition. For Americans, that is the biggest concern and one Trump tapped into among blue-collar voters, at Bannon’s urging.

Of his economic war with China, Bannon said: “We have to be maniacally focused on that. If we continue to lose it, we’re five years away, I think, ten years at the most, of hitting an inflection point from which we’ll never be able to recover.”

Such doom-and-gloom talk may be getting Trump’s receptive ear. His administration has recently dusted off some little-used trade weapons, starting a process that could lead to penalties on Chinese steel and aluminum imports. On Monday, Trump announced the U.S. is investigating China for allegedly stealing American technology and intellectual property.

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