Trump sets the tone on China: America will not be challenged
The Trump administration has crafted a strong and comprehensive new National Security Strategy (NSS). Most importantly, it recognizes that the fundamental driver of contemporary geopolitics is a Sino-American rivalry and that Washington must compete more vigorously with Beijing.
Indeed, the US is a tad late to the game: China has viewed the US as its chief rival since the end of the Cold War. To be sure, identifying China as a competitor is not a radical departure from the past. Other presidents have pushed back against some of China’s more troublesome actions. An example is the 20-year-long bipartisan effort to upgrade relations with Japan and India.
But this document is different. The Trump administration believes (correctly) that the driver of China’s strategic behavior is to undermine US influence in Asia, and increasingly, in other critical parts of the world. The strategy also recognized that under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), China will never be a “responsible stakeholder” in a US-created liberal world order — it would rather be the sole owner of a China-led world order.
The strategy sets forth a roadmap for competing with China more vigorously in all domains of national power: military, economic, diplomatic, informational. The administration began to highlight this approach with a trade action to investigate Chinese Intellectual Property theft. It further developed key themes of its Asia strategy during Trump’s trip to Asia where Trump spoke of a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” It reaffirmed India as a Major Defense Partner and offered it advanced military weaponry. And it joined the “quad-meeting” of the big Indo-Pacific democracies of Australia, India, and Japan.
The more competitive approach to China should not be a surprise. Trump always had an inclination that something was not right in Sino-American relations. He spoke much about Chinese economic malfeasance on the campaign trail. The administration further developed its thinking on China’s security challenge as they met with US allies and partners and traveled to Asia.
The NSS should guide the rest of the government to prepare for a long-term competition. The Department of Defense is working on a National Defense Strategy, and preserving American regional primacy will likely be a key goal. Indeed, security competition should be the most straightforward area where the US can set right the ship of state. The president will have to work with Congress to remove the “sequestration” defense-spending caps and adequately fund the military. The effectiveness of a competitive strategy will also depend on fixes to the US program of defense exports and security assistance such that Asian friends can stand up for themselves and forge more of a coalition against Chinese encroachments.
A harder challenge will be organizing the US government to implement competitive strategies in economics, diplomacy and informational activities. The economic competition requires US willingness to take tough action against Chinese entities benefiting from intellectual-property theft and US push back (hopefully, with like-minded nations) against Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) that distort trade and block competition.
But the administration will also need a trade agenda for Asia, and thus must abandon the idea that trade deficits alone are what matters. Trade deficits are only one measurement of international economic success; equally important is what could be called “the capital balance” – how attractive countries are to investors. The administration recognizes this in its tax plan but not in its trade policy.
Unless the Trump administration overcomes its focus on the trade deficit, not only will it be unable to negotiate meaningful agreements with emerging partners such as Vietnam, it also will undermine its own pro-growth economic agenda. Both are necessary to undermine China’s strategy.
Information competition will require new organizations akin to the US Information Agency in the Cold War that both undermine China’s vast propaganda campaigns throughout the world and reinforce US diplomacy in Asia. Such an agency should highlight China’s manifold weaknesses, vulnerabilities and abuses of human rights.
Relatedly, although the promotion of human rights has lost favor in the US since the Iraq War and the Arab Spring, it is profoundly in American interests to have a robust human-rights dimension in its competition with China. A human-rights policy would put China on the defensive against such a challenge, forcing it to spend scarce resources defending its reputation. Furthermore, a China more respectful of human rights at home will be more likely to respect international customs and rules abroad. While the thrust of the NSS focuses on the power dynamics of geopolitics, there is plenty of language about US values embedded within the document. This gives the State Department leeway to forge a human rights agenda.
In sum, the Trump team set out a clear and coherent strategic concept for dealing with China. The hard work will be implementing a strategy that requires major bureaucratic changes. Since the “opening of China” by President Nixon in 1972, the US government has been organized to bring China into the “family of nations.” Now, the US must make a switch and ensure that this “family” which China has joined is not forever sundered by the CCP’s ambitions.