- - Monday, August 26, 2019

Americans are losing their taste for Chinese, but not those savory dishes served with chopsticks. Rather, it’s a distaste for China’s behavior resulting from the worsening conflict over trade that is causing frowns. From its refusal to compete fairly in the international marketplace to its apparent failure to halt the flow of deadly synthetic drugs into the U.S., “the Middle Kingdom” is losing its status as America’s BFF. It’s no wonder, with President Trump playing chicken with China.

A recent Pew Research Center survey found that amid the deteriorating economic ties between Washington and Beijing, 60 percent of Americans hold an unfavorable opinion of China, a substantial jump from 47 percent in 2018 and the highest level of disfavor in 14 years. By contrast, only 26 percent expressed a favorable view of the Asian giant, down from 38 percent a year ago.

The news isn’t all ominous, though. Despite the ongoing trade tiff, 50 percent of respondents still believe “China’s growing economy is a good thing for the U.S.,” with 41 percent calling it “a bad thing.”

Disputes over money, be it a buck or a billion, are a fact of life. After decades of trade favors for China that cost the U.S. economy hundreds of billions a year, Americans elected Mr. Trump partly on his pledge to undertake a faceoff with Beijing that previous presidents haven’t had the stomach for. “I am the chosen one,” he jested, sort of, last week.

Unfair trade, though, is no joke, and Mr. Trump has struck with tariffs on Chinese imports worth $250 billion. Levies on an additional $300 billion in Chinese goods were due to begin on Sept. 1, but the president pushed back the effective date until Dec. 15 for about half of the products. When China last week imposed duties on $75 billion worth of U.S. goods, Mr. Trump ratcheted up his tariff rate from 10 percent to 15 percent.

Adding to the stakes, the U.S. Treasury last week imposed economic sanctions on three Chinese nationals who have been charged with trafficking in fentanyl, a dangerously addictive synthetic opioid. In the course of ongoing trade talks, Mr. Trump has urged China to choke off the flow of illicit fentanyl to Americans. Chinese President Xi Jinping obliged in February 2018 by recategorizing the drug as a controlled substance in China ineligible for export to the U.S.

Fentanyl’s ingredients are reportedly still available for export, though, and large quantities of the drug are cooked up in Mexico and smuggled into the U.S. Fatalities from fentanyl have continued to rise, from more than 29,000 in 2017 to around 32,000 in 2018. The president has responded by charging recently that China has reneged on a promise to stop the carnage.

Mr. Trump could be gambling the White House on his game of chicken with the Chinese. While his domestic policies have goosed the U.S. economy — averaging 2.8 percent during his term — and pushed unemployment to a near-record 3.7 percent low, the trade war has left global stock markets shaken. With uncertainty on the rise, the president’s Democratic adversaries are panting for an election-year economic pull-back.

In the Trump-averse world, the Donald is thought to have naively played into the hands of China’s president. If Mr. Xi hangs tough, writes David Von Drehle in The Washington Post, he can likely tip the U.S. into a recession and cripple Mr. Trump’s chances of re-election. Or if Mr. Xi chooses to make a deal with the United States, he could win the long game by ensuring a second Trump term and the spread of Trump Derangement Syndrome: “Markets would give a hearty cheer; Trump would crown himself the China slayer. But Xi might gain four more years of severe disruption in the West.”

Members of China’s Communist Politburo must harbor the very same hope, but it may be wishful thinking. Rather than a wrecked Trump presidency or a weakened United States, a third consequence could emerge: an American electorate buying the president’s insistence on trade that’s fair and dangerous-drug-free. The Pew poll suggests it is already happening. And in short order, “China called last night our top trade people and said ‘let’s get back to the table,’” Mr. Trump announced Monday at the G-7 summit in France.

Playing chicken with China is a nerve-wracking game. Competing, though, is necessary if Mr. Trump is to fulfill his pledge to “keep America great.”

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