One way to understand Trump administration foreign policy is to understand that it is more comfortable with the currency of currency than the currency of American soldiers abroad. That isn’t always the best approach, since many of America’s adversaries are wedded to military interventions — including grossly illegal ones. And how the United States reassures its allies that it is not abandoning the playing field to soldiers on the other side is of inestimable importance.
But since money appears central to administration thinking, consider China, the National Basketball Association (NBA), and the Trump administration.
The NBA has a foreign policy: don’t irritate China beyond what is necessary.
Last week, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted, “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” The reason is obvious, and Morey should be commended. But NBA commissioner Adam Silver quickly forced him to delete it. Morey and Silver offered China one of those “I’m sorry if you were offended” apologies, while Silver insisted he was not apologizing for free speech. That wasn’t sufficient for the Chinese, so Rockets stars James Harden and Russell Westbrook muddied the water by announcing, “We apologize. We love China.” Further confusing the situation for sports fans, sports empire ESPN expressly forbade any on-air discussion of what was actually happening in Hong Kong, even as they discussed Morey and Silver.
Money — specifically fear of losing a multi-billion-dollar constellation involving media, streaming, merchandise, player exchanges, and more — is the driver for the NBA and for ESPN. This is why sports figures should stay out of politics.
The Trump administration, on the other hand, appears to have a stiffer spine, as befits the government of the United States. It has gone straight after what China cares about most: energy, espionage, and the surveillance of its people.
In September, the administration announced sanctions against Chinese companies still doing business in Iran. Two of the companies, which the U.S. accused of transporting Iranian oil, are linked to the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC). This week, the CNPC announced it has pulled out of a $5-billion natural gas project in Iran, causing major energy and economic ripples for both countries. According to The Wall Street Journal, China has cut its Iranian oil imports by about two thirds, and “overall trade fell under $2 billion in July from $3.5 billion in the same month of 2018, according to Chinese customs.” All figures should be taken with a grain of salt, as fudging, cheating, and hiding assets are the norm, but the trend is clear.
This week, the administration sanctioned Chinese companies and government agencies involved in the surveillance of Muslim Uighurs in the West of China and the Hong Kong protesters.
Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch (hardly a pro-Trump organization), called the move “encouraging. I certainly can’t think of any other administration taking a stand like this. I think especially for Uighurs, and others who had family members detained literally off the grid for the last few years, watching a government take steps like this to bring some pressure to bear is very encouraging.”
And Huawei, the Chinese tech company, is looking to be running low on American semiconductors and other parts for its 5G network, raising questions about its ability to maintain global dominance in telecommunications — and industrial and national security spying. Huawei can substitute its own parts in the network for American parts, but The Washington Post reports that “analysts have said a Huawei operating system would have a tough time competing globally with Google and its popular Gmail and Chrome apps[.] … Huawei chief executive Ren said the U.S. blockade was causing a large drop in Huawei’s smartphone sales outside of China.”
The Chinese market is big, and sales inside China are not to be discounted, but prestige and the ability to insert itself into American (or other Western) networks and systems for the purpose of spying and stealing Western technology make for an enormous driver for China. Americans will be inconvenienced by the demise of Huawei in the U.S. market, but the need to stop Chinese intrusion into American telecom systems is paramount.
Foreign policy is best a careful mix of talk, money, and military might. The administration’s mix could use some rebalancing, but “follow the money” is still not a bad way to go.