This week, President Donald Trump is wrapping up an Asian tour. So far, he’s repeated his demand that North Korea end its nuclear program, gotten a nice hat from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and criticized Russophobes in Vietnam.
But Trump’s most surprising moments were in China. Trump took a hard line against China in last year’s presidential election, threatening to impose blanket tariffs on Chinese trade and denouncing what he considered an exploitative Chinese trade policy. “We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country, and that’s what they’re doing,” he said at a campaign rally in 2016.
But during his address to Chinese leaders, Trump added some nuance to his criticism, blaming his predecessors rather than China itself for “[taking] advantage of another country for the benefit of its citizens.”
Like Trump, Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-Minn.) has lurched between embracing China and criticizing it. He’s also been on a few Asia tours of his own. As Eden Prairie’s representative in the Minnesota House of Representatives, he visited China twice. During his first trip in 2005, Paulsen joined a contingent from the Young Leaders Program with the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, a nonprofit that promotes cooperation between America and China.
In 2007, Paulsen returned to China as part of a fellowship program with the Aspen Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based educational and policy studies organization. He spent three and a half days in China and about a week in India. During the Chinese leg of his trip, he met with American manufacturers doing business with China, Chinese academics focused on environmental and social science issues, and government officials.
After being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, Paulsen traveled to China along with Reps. Charles Boustany (R-La.) and Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) as a member of the House U.S.-China Working Group (USCWG). The group is meant to “build diplomatic relations with China and educate Members of Congress through meetings and briefings with business, academic and political leaders from the U.S. and China.”
But Paulsen, too, has sometimes sounded the alarm on China. As far back as 2010, he testified before the House Ways and Means Committee that China was disregarding global trade rules. A press release from his office reported that “Congressman Paulsen called on China to honor existing international trade agreements. China has been accused of unfairly supporting domestic industries and imposing barriers to trade. Representative Paulsen noted that China is an important market for US medical device manufacturers, whose exports to China totaled $1.3 billion last year. If China slips into protectionism, the negative impact on Minnesota could be drastic.”
The following year, he addressed anxieties about Chinese competition in a vlog. He again charged that China was guilty of unfair trade and business practices, including “a lack of protecting intellectual property, market distortions, [and] currency manipulation.” Paulsen took a combative stance, insisting that the U.S. must “use every tool in the toolbox to fight off those unfair advantages.”
And earlier this year, while criticizing the president’s positions on trade, he insisted that free trade was the best way to “keep the momentum going so China doesn’t fill the vacuum.”
The world’s most populous country makes a great bogeyman, and both Paulsen and Trump are willing to criticize it when doing so suits their political agendas. But they’re also both walking a fine line. When they’re not demonizing China, they want to engage with it as a partner. Moreover, their collective criticisms are limited only to economic issues – neither has offered criticism on China’s many human rights abuses or its authoritarian government.
The U.S.-China relationship will, by all accounts, define the present century. The inconsistency with which Paulsen, Trump, and the rest of the GOP approach China is not unique; most American presidents and politicians have utilized the same schizophrenic approach for decades.
The big question now is how long this tightrope act is sustainable. While Trump was sympathetic toward China during his recent trip, his mercurial temperament means that he might still push Paulsen and the rest of his party to adopt an economic nationalist agenda like the one he touted during his campaign. And given Paulsen’s tendency to go along with the president’s agenda, he might soon be less enthusiastic about trade with China.