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Chaos Under Heaven

America, China, and the Battle for the 21st Century

By Josh Rogin
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Chaos Under Heaven by Josh Rogin

Chaos Under Heaven (2021) brings to life the behind-the-scenes negotiations and deliberations that dictated the Trump administration’s policy toward China. America’s understanding of the inner workings of the Chinese state has changed a great deal, yet competing interests have so far led to a chaotic response as the US grapples with this foreign policy challenge. 

Key idea 1 of 10

The Trump administration faced complex challenges in dealing with China.

In early November 2016, everyone was preparing for a Hillary Clinton win in the upcoming American election – even the Chinese government. The presidential office of Xi Jinping was expecting to face familiar politicians and a traditional diplomatic approach to things. But Donald Trump’s surprise victory meant that China suddenly had to deal with an unpredictable force of nature. 

And in Washington, the incoming Trump administration quickly had to determine their approach to the powerful Asian nation, which itself had become more and more erratic.

The key message here is: The Trump administration faced complex challenges in dealing with China.

Since the days of President George H. W. Bush, who served as a chief US liaison to Beijing in the 1970s, the US has largely been supportive of China. The theory was that if the US helped China develop a robust, international economy, the country would gradually open up and become more democratic. This policy continued well into the Obama administration. But by the end of Obama’s eight-year term, the traditional approach was no longer working.

For starters, no one could foresee just how much the internet and digital technology would change the world. Over the past decade, few countries have been as aggressive in taking advantage of this technology as China. Its hackers have brazenly broken into corporate systems and stolen intellectual property. 

Beijing has also forced international firms into joint ventures, which gave the Chinese even easier access to copyrighted material. 

Perhaps more troubling was the dawning realization that Chinese businesses are beholden to the state. The Chinese Communist Party can easily demand that a company hand over its technology and data; entrepreneurs never say no. Beijing has no qualms about using that information to bolster China’s military and keep track of its citizens. 

In other words, China’s economic growth in the internet age only made the country more nationalistic, totalitarian, and oppressive. America’s plan clearly did not work out.

As the Trump administration moved into the White House, it was going to face these fairly obvious issues – and so much more that was just out of sight. 

Over the years, China and the US had become entangled both economically and ideologically. This complex relationship meant that the administration was divided. Washington struggled to speak to Beijing with a single voice. 

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