Donald Trump gets tough on China by borrowing a little from Beijing's playbook

Amb. Burns: Trump should not try to be president before Jan. 20th

This time, the "get tough on China" talk could be more than empty rhetoric — and leaders in Beijing may even recognize some of the tactics Donald Trump plans to use against them.

The president-elect is showing a willingness to try to shape U.S. trade with China in ways that are politically more direct than previous administrations have been willing to discuss. On Sunday, he threatened — again — to use steep, blanket tariffs to stem imports into the United States.

He has repeatedly declared that exports should be a priority for U.S.-based companies, and has promised a tax structure that will help make them happen.

His willingness to wield political influence over business matters isn't limited to trade. Over the last week, Trump has shown he isn't afraid to lean directly on U.S. companies that aren't behaving as he wants. On Tuesday morning, he used Twitter to pressure Boeing to charge less for a new Air Force One. On Friday, he promised "retribution" against firms that fire employees or build factories overseas.

"I was in Beijing a week ago, and at one point I said to an audience of government officials, it's going to be very interesting for you to work with an American leader who admires a lot of what you guys do," said Ian Bremmer, a closely watched political scientist and founder of consulting firm Eurasia Group. When the officials showed surprise at Bremmer's remark, he explained what he meant: "When you say, 'Jump' to a company, they ask, 'How high?' Trump would love that."

Representatives from the Trump transition team did not immediately respond to emails from CNBC requesting comment.

I think a lot of the long-standing assumptions have been undermined by what's happened in China. They're not becoming more liberal.
Robert Manning
senior fellow, Atlantic Council

Neither Bremmer nor anyone else expects the U.S. economy to start mimicking China, where 20 to 25 percent of GDP comes from state-controlled companies whose primary purpose isn't even to make profits but to advance Beijing's political goals such as maintaining employment.

But "we're entering an era where I wouldn't be surprised to see the U.S. government being less shy about applying state power to achieve what it sees as the national interest," said John Minnich, senior Asia-Pacific analyst at consulting firm Stratfor.

The dynamic between the two countries is changing. For decades, Democrats and Republicans alike have said that the best way to encourage a more open China was for the U.S. to just keep trading with the country and drawing it into the global economy. The hope was that eventually, China's tremendous market would become as open to U.S. companies and investment as the U.S. is to Chinese imports and investment.

But that hasn't been happening, especially over the last few years.

"I think a lot of the long-standing assumptions have been undermined by what's happened in China. They're not becoming more liberal," said Robert Manning, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. In fact, Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who took power in 2012, has rolled back many of the trade and currency reforms that his predecessor began.

Trump showed that American workers have lost their patience with China, if they ever had it. Trump appealed to voters in struggling manufacturing regions largely by saying he would impose restrictions on imports from China, especially in the form of tariffs.

"We can't continue to allow China to rape our country, and that's what they're doing," Trump told excited crowds at an Indiana rally in June, referring to the trade deficit with China. Such language was the norm for then-candidate Trump, who has said repeatedly that Beijing's heavy state influence on its economy is "killing" the United States.

Wall St. concerned over Trump's China warning

Trump certainly is not the only person suggesting creative ways to counter China's unfair trade practices. A June paper from the nonpartisan American Security Project, for instance, suggested using U.S. antitrust law to level the playing field against China's biggest industries, which are part of a "single country-wide State syndicate."

"There's definitely this idea that state capitalism in China gives them a negotiating advantage" on trade matters, Bremmer said. "When the United States tries to negotiate, they get undercut by companies that are inherently unpatriotic, because of their fiduciary responsibilities" to investors. "And Trump wants to change that."

The power of the American president is not absolute. There's a serious amount of pushback that he will get from important people, including from some people's he's appointed to posts.
Ian Bremmer
president, Eurasia Group

But Bremmer and others who spoke with CNBC argued that Trump has only so much power to restructure how global trade works. First off, Trump is likely to run into congressional resistance — from the GOP at least as much as Democrats — if he makes it harder for companies to operate overseas or otherwise seems to direct their behavior.

"The power of the American president is not absolute. There's a serious amount of pushback that he will get from important people, including from some people he's appointed to posts," Bremmer said.

Moreover, manufacturing now accounts for about 15 percent of U.S. GDP, which "is the highest it's been in 20 years at least," according to Manning. The real threat to American workers is not cheap labor in China, he said, but rising automation from technology, which increasingly will threaten not just factory workers but others such as automobile drivers, warehouse employees and retail workers.

"We may expand manufacturing, and we ought to, but it won't bring back the jobs that they're talking about," Manning said. "We're having the wrong debate. The debate needs to be, 'How do you prepare the workforce for 21st-century jobs?'"