, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

How are John R. Bolton’s new kiss-and-tell revelations to date about his tenure as President Trump’s national security adviser truly deranged? In at least three big, related ways when it comes to China.

First, (according to this most comprehensive statement of his views) Bolton apparently was too busy marketing this policy potboiler to have bothered reading the text of the trade deal with China Mr. Trump signed in mid-January. Rather than the agreement entailing “less…than met the eye,” it entailed much more. Not only did the Phase One deal require China greatly to boost its purchases of U.S.-made advanced manufactures (in addition to the agricultural products on which Bolton obsesses). It also created dispute resolution procedures – meaning an enforcement mechanism – completely tilted in America’s favor.

As I’ve explained, when all procedures are exhausted, China is only entitled to pull out of the entire agreement if it’s unhappy with the results – an extreme unlikelihood given China’s heavy reliance on selling to the U.S. market to maintain growth and employment that Beijing sees as being both political and economically important. The United States has the same ultimate option, but its threats to do so would be highly credible, given the huge net losses it suffered from pre-Trump China trade policies.

Moreover, the President secured these benefits while maintaining steep U.S. tariffs on literally hundreds of billions of dollars worth of prospective Chinese exports to America – and especially on those high value manufactures that have benefited most from the Made in China 2025 program and other Chinese predatory economic policies, and whose development pose the greatest threats to U.S. national security as well as prosperity. Also crucial – Bolton criticizes his former boss for agreeing to China’s insistence that he refrain from imposing new tariffs in return for restarting the trade talks. But the structure of the trade agreement leaves this option entirely open to the United States – and, in effect, with impunity. 

By the way, the results of the trade talks also demolish Bolton’s uber-claim that President Trump’s China policies stemmed solely from his desire for reelection, and the related suggestion that Mr. Trump believed that a purely cosmetic agreement would serve his political purposes much more effectively than reaching a deal heavily favoring U.S. interests.

They similarly leave as a smoking ruin Bolton’s allegation that the President continued to flatter Chinese leader Xi Jinping after the CCP Virus broke out because he was desperate to preserve the trade agreement. If anyone felt such desperation, it was Xi – whose regime hasn’t even tried to use the virus’ damage to China’s own economy as an excuse for at least temporarily ignoring Phase One’s import requirements.

Bolton’s second deranged claim follows on directly from that last point. On the one hand, he accuses the President of being completely indifferent to his master plan of fitting “China trade policy into a broader strategic framework,” and complains that “we struggled to avoid being sucked into the black hole of U.S.-China trade issues.”

On the other hand, he credits Mr. Trump with appreciating “the key truth that politico-military power rests on a strong economy. Trump frequently says that stopping China’s unfair economic growth at America’s expense is the best way to defeat China militarily, which is fundamentally correct.”

Yet as just detailed, Bolton heaps scorn on major Trump achievements that have gone far toward weakening China’s economy vis-a-vis America’s. Moreover, such Trump moves also include punishing sanctions on Chinese telecoms giant Huawei that Bolton bizarrely views as undeserving of mention.

The final evidence of Bolton’s derangement: his whining about the President’s decision-making style. According to the author, Americans should be up in arms because Mr. Trump’s advisers have been “badly fractured intellectually” and because “Trade matters were handled from day one in a completely chaotic way.” Indeed, the Trump leadership style, Bolton moans, “made my head hurt.”

To which any minimally intelligent and/or adult reader should respond “So what?” Leaving aside that it was never the President’s job to please whatever otherwordly expectations Bolton (a longtime Washington operator who obviously knows better) claims to have had about policymaking processes, the results have been entirely coherent and clear to anyone caring actually to look. Whatever uncertainties Mr. Trump may have had about choosing China trade tactics and whose advice to follow, he has plainly put U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer and other so-called hawks in command, and the results have been a wide variety of measures that have both gut-punched China’s economy (see, e.g., here) and steadily decoupled America’s economic fortunes from this dangerous dictatorship. (See, e.g., this post.)

Unless the rest of Bolton’s forthcoming book is completely different and indeed vastly more coherent than the portions made public to date (and why would he and his publicists want to lead with any material they believed wasn’t bullet-proof), his tell-all will only be important for shedding light on a single question: Will the author be best remembered as a dangerously incompetent armchair warhawk who helped lead the United States into a major disaster in Iraq, or as a wildly flailing freelance wannabe hitman who tried to sabotage an urgently needed turnaround in America’s approach to China?