Donald Trump has taken quite a few steps to make China happy since taking office, but the American president broke new ground over the weekend.
President Donald Trump said Sunday he has instructed his Commerce Department to help get a Chinese telecommunications company "back into business" after the U.S. government cut off access to its American suppliers.At issue is that department's move last month to block the ZTE Corp., a major supplier of telecoms networks and smartphones based in southern China, from importing American components for seven years.
In an unexpected tweet yesterday afternoon, Trump declared, "President Xi of China, and I, are working together to give massive Chinese phone company, ZTE, a way to get back into business, fast. Too many jobs in China lost. Commerce Department has been instructed to get it done!"
So, the Republican is eager to save Chinese jobs? What is Trump talking about?
Let's unpack this a bit. ZTE is a Chinese company, but it's also international telecom giant that's drawn scrutiny from U.S. officials. Last year, the Trump administration imposed a harsh penalty on ZTE, for example, for ignoring U.S. sanctions, selling U.S.-sourced products to Iran, and lying about it. The same company was accused of improper dealings with North Korea.
Making matters slightly worse, some U.S. intelligence officials have warned that China may have used ZTE products for foreign espionage.
In light of these controversies, the Chinese telecom company has faced significant American penalties, which have taken their toll on ZTE. Nevertheless, Trump, who ran on a platform of being "tough" on China, now seems eager to help the company and save its workers.
After all, the Republican said, there are "too many" jobs in China being lost.
It's often difficult to know why Trump makes the decisions he does, but what appears to be happening here is that he's probably looking for bargaining chips. The White House has already raised the prospect of a trade war with Beijing, and negotiators have been trying to reach a deal that would avoid escalating tariffs.
With this in mind, Trump may be effectively telling China, "If we can come to a favorable trade agreement, I'll ease up on ZTE." The point is likely to look for some kind of leverage.
Maybe this'll work, maybe not. But even if this is the rationale, it doesn't change the fact that it leaves the American president in a position in which he appears to be scrambling to help a Chinese company accused of pretty serious transgressions.
How many voters who liked Trump's chest-thumping about China in 2016 expected him to say, "Too many jobs in China lost" in 2018?