From a comfortable position thousands of miles away from the White House (he has reportedly been spending a lot of time in Europe lately), former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon has embraced a stance toward Beijing that's somewhere to the right of John Bolton. Bannon calls himself a China "superhawk", which helps make President Trump's tough stance look moderate by comparison, while pro-business negotiators like Steven Mnuchin look like sinophiles.
Bannon used two recent interviews with CNBC to explain his hostility toward Beijing. His argument boils down to this: for too long, Washington has allowed Beijing to get away with its anticompetitive subsidies and market protections, while the MSS steals whatever technology isn't deliberately handed over by American companies hoping to enter the world's largest growth market. Instead of fighting back, Washington has sat idly by as American money and corporations helped transform the Chinese economy, giving the Chinese the tools to stand up to the US.
But now that Beijing is making serious strides toward achieving its goal of supplanting the US as the world's top military and economic power, the White House can't afford to be silent any longer, which is why Bannon believes Trump "won't back down" during the trade war.
Expanding on this theme during an interview with the South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong-based newspaper whose owner has ties to the Communist Party, Bannon explained that driving Huawei out of Europe and the US is "10 times more important" than striking a trade deal.
"It is a massive national security issue to the West," Bannon said, in a phone interview on Saturday with the South China Morning Post. "The executive order is 10 times more important than walking away from the trade deal. It [Huawei] is a major national security threat, not just to the US but to the rest of the world. We are going to shut it down."
Despite being largely shut out of the US and a handful of other international markets, Huawei has made inroads in Europe, where governments have tentatively cleared domestic telecoms firms to use Huawei products in the construction of their 5G networks. The Trump Administration has warned that using Huawei parts could invite spying by Beijing, though Huawei has denied it would ever cooperate with the government against its customers and has promised to sign "no spying" pledges. Of course, Chinese law stipulates that Chinese companies must help the state when asked.
The interview took place earlier this week, shortly after President Trump announced a brief waiver that will keep Huawei off the Commerce Department's "Entity List" for 90 days. Once the prohibition takes effect, however, the Chinese telecoms giant won't be able to buy components from American firms. It also took place before reports that leaked late Tuesday claimed the administration was weighing whether to add more Chinese companies to the "Entities List".
Going one step further, Bannon said his ultimate goal is to shut Chinese companies out of American capital markets, something that would horrify Wall Street and the investment bankers whom Bannon has accused of being moneymen for the Communist Party.
"The next move we make is to cut off all the IPOs, unwind all the pension funds and insurance companies in the US that provide capital to the Chinese Communist Party," he said.
"We’ll see a big move on Wall Street to restrict access to capital markets to Chinese companies until [they agree to] this fundamental reform."
Trump made a huge mistake last spring when he intervened to lift restrictions on ZTE.
"During the trade talks’ early stage, he [Trump] gave a waiver for ZTE, which I think was a mistake," Bannon said.
The crux of Bannon's argument is that by engaging Beijing in an all-out "economic war", Washington might succeed in forcing the Communist Party leadership to make certain structural reforms. Bannon doubts this will be resolved quickly: "I don’t think it’s going to be resolved quickly. This is the beginning of a very long and tough process."
But regardless of the outcome, Bannon believes the US - including its bankers and corporations - can no longer afford to coddle Beijing. "The pressure we will keep up will be relentless. We are not going to be quiet."