New Delhi: The United States needs a change of strategy to contain China. President Donald Trump rightly recognized China as the number one threat to world free trade. Instituting protectionist measures against China may violate free trade principles but punitive actions are required now and then to preserve the balance. Trouble is Trump has attacked every major economy with a trade imbalance with the United States in the campaign against China. The Trump administration’s most thoughtless decision was to quit the Trans-Pacific Partnership because his predecessor, Barack Obama, had painstakingly put it together. TPP lives on thanks to the initiative of Japan and contributions from other partners but the re-entry of the United States, although potentially embarrassing to the quitter, would greatly empower the bloc. It is the sensible way to contain China.

Most of the free world accepts US leadership precisely because the United States keeps the world free while minimally policing it. Trump has a point that the United States has put itself out for the rest of the world to a point where it threatens US power, prosperity and the American way of life. But attacking and levelling up friends and foes alike is not an intelligent thing to do. The United States has a consuming problem with China. The trade imbalance with China simply cannot be tolerated. Fair enough. Bipartisan consensus has grown on that in one of the most divisive capitals of the world, Washington. But the consensus is being undermined by Donald Trump’s assault on friends. This is particularly evident in the theatre where both threats and opportunities exist for containing China, namely the Asia-Pacific region.

The United States is turning the screws on South Korea and Japan for not paying for US security. The situation is no different from NATO Europe’s reluctance to contribute its full share to collective security, with Germany being the foremost freeloader. But there is also the question of prioritizing threats. China, surely, is a bigger threat to world peace and free trade than the parsimony of Germany, South Korea and Japan. The time to put the squeeze on them will come, but it is not now. China squarely has to be faced for posing geopolitical and geo-economic threats. That requires unifying the rest of the region against the Chinese threat which is the only way to prevent an unpredictable war from breaking out. Once China accepts that a coalition of forces could defeat its ambitions and hurl China back to the pre-reforms swamp of revolution, broken lives, diseases and early deaths, it will swiftly raise the white flag.

This situation could be created if the United States goes systematically after China. The first essential condition is that Trump must distinguish between economic friends and foes. China is a foe. The free world is not although it might have run up huge trade imbalances with the United States. These ought to be corrected but later after China is neutralized. An exclusive US trade war with China would bring a surprisingly large number of countries to the US side. Except an outlier like France, most of Western Europe would support the United States. So would India and South East Asia. The reduction in Chinese economic power would throw open opportunities and markets for the rest of the world. The resulting economic expansion would cool tempers all around and permit the United States to rationally approach the issue of trade deficits. No state would grudge the United States its rightful share if the approach is fair and friendly.

Geopolitical threats emanating from China also require wise handling. With the Trump administration threatening friends in the Asia-Pacific and South Asia regions with protective tariffs, there is little incentive for them experiencing economic decline to squarely face China. The withdrawal from TPP also signals that the United States is not bringing major investments to the region. This is complemented by military half-measures to obstruct Chinese claims to the South China Sea and the East China Sea. If the United States pivots more wholly to the region, it would energize China’s opponents. When the United States buys a real stake in the Asia-Pacific, China will know that its days as a hegemon are numbered. Quad and all the other groups will begin to make sense. As a preliminary, however, the Trump administration has to return to TPP, discriminate between friends and enemies in trade, and convince the region of its high stakes in containing China.