President Trump's New China Strategy is Just the Realism We Need

Walter Lohman, Thomas Spoehr, Terry Miller
·7 min read

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In compliance with the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, the Trump administration last week released the United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China.

It’s an excellent exposition of U.S. assumptions and strategy—as they are, not as they have been reported to be.

The great advance in the 2017 National Security Strategy was its recognition of the great-power competition between the U.S. and China. From that flows the assessments in the Strategic Approach about Chinese intentions and the threats they pose to American interests.

The many policies that respond to these threats—such as the Justice Department’s China Initiative to root out Chinese efforts to steal American trade secrets, the tightening of export and investment controls, the requirement of Chinese state and party media to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, the ratcheting up of support for Taiwan, and the enormous increase in freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea—clearly demonstrate a new, tougher strategy.

That’s good; overdue, really.

What has often been overlooked is the subtlety of the administration’s approach. It’s these subtleties, not the restatements of well-known hard lines, that make the Strategic Approach remarkable.

  • “Our approach is not premised on determining a particular end state for China.” Also: “United States policies are not premised on an attempt to change the PRC’s domestic governance model.” The obvious reference is to what is now recognized as an illusion that prosperity would lead to liberal political reform in China. Carried to its logical conclusion, liberal economic reform may have led to political change. But given that China halted real, systemic market reforms 15 years ago, we may never know. And at any rate, the U.S. cannot control or dictate this.

  • “Even as we compete with the PRC, we welcome cooperation where our interests align.” “We do not seek to contain China’s development … .” and “ … [T]he U.S. welcomes cooperation by China to expand and work toward shared objectives in ways that benefit the peace, stability and prosperity of the world.” This is not the language of zero-sum approaches that many have ascribed to the administration.

  • There is a refreshing candor reflected in the statement “the United States sees no value in engaging with Beijing for symbolism and pageantry; we instead demand tangible results and constructive outcomes.” It suggests a long-term commitment to results, as opposed to meaningless agreements or gestures.

  • “ … For those unfair Chinese trade practices that are subject to dispute settlement at the [World Trade Organization], the U.S. continues to pursue and win multiple cases.” It’s hard to read into this and other references to the WTO in the report that the U.S. is about to pull out of the WTO. In fact, the report goes on to reference the “robust trilateral process” among the U.S., European Union, and Japan “to develop disciplines for state-owned enterprises, industrial subsidies, and forced technology transfers.” Where will these new rules ultimately reside? The WTO. The Strategic Approach is about WTO reform, not withdrawal.

  • “The United States will continue to maintain strong unofficial relations with Taiwan in accordance with our ‘One China’ policy, based on the Taiwan Relations Act and the three United States-PRC Joint Communiques.” Also: “In a 1982 memorandum, President Ronald Reagan insisted ‘that the quantity and quality of the arms provided Taiwan be conditioned entirely on the threat posed by the PRC.’” This is the traditional American position on cross-straits relations. Its recounting here cuts two ways. One, it runs against fringe assertions that the U.S. is about to bargain Taiwan away. Two, it refutes the other extreme conclusion that the U.S. is about to overturn 40 years of policy by essentially recognizing Taiwan’s independence.

  • “The United States welcomes contributions by China to sustainable, high-quality development that accords with international best practices, but [One Belt, One Road] projects frequently operate well outside of these standards … .” The report does acknowledge “Beijing’s increasing use of economic leverage to extract political concessions from or exact retribution against other countries … .” The recent history of China’s economic engagement is replete with examples of this. Still, the report indicates that it’s not the money itself. It’s how Beijing is using it. Theoretically, it could convert One Belt, One Road to the cooperative, transparent model it adopted for the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

  • “Chinese students represent the largest cohort of foreign students in the United States today. The United States values the contributions of Chinese students and researchers. … [W]e are improving processes to screen out the small minority of Chinese applicants who attempt to enter the United States under false pretenses or with malign intent.” That pretty much says it all.

  • “For the past seven decades, the free and open international order has provided the stability to allow sovereign, independent states to flourish and contribute to unprecedented global economic growth.” Also: “[T]he United States does not and will not accommodate Beijing’s actions that weaken a free, open, and rules-based international order.” Has there been more handwringing on any foreign policy-related issue over the past three years than the fate of the international rules-based order? Apparently, it didn’t deserve all the angst.

  • “Beijing’s military buildup threatens United States and allied national security interests and poses complex challenges for global commerce and supply chains.” There’s clear acknowledgement that Beijing is bent on building a military able to dominate its neighbors and establish regional hegemony. It’s a call to action for the U.S. military to counter China’s unprecedented investments in military capabilities.

  • “The United States will work with our robust network of allies and like-minded partners to resist attacks on our shared norms and values, within our own governance institutions, around the world, and in international organizations.” There’s actually a whole section in the report on the topic of the “challenges to our values.” This should silence those who argue there has been a revolution in U.S. foreign policy over the past three years that has thrown both values and alliances out the window.

  • “In recent years, Beijing has intervened in sovereign nations’ internal affairs to engineer consent for its policies.” Also: “ … the [Chinese Communist Party] uses a range of actors to advance its interests in the United States and other open democracies.” It’s too bad this has to be said, but China is not bent on global domination. Beijing is intent on making the world safe for its regional hegemony and domestic authoritarianism.

  • “ … the United States is confronting China’s market-distorting forced technology transfer and intellectual-property practices by imposing costs in the form of tariffs levied on Chinese goods coming into the United States. Those tariffs will remain in place until a fair Phase Two trade deal is agreed to by the United States and the PRC.” The tariffs hurt the Americans who pay them and the American exporters who faced Chinese retaliation. But no free-trader likes the Trump administration’s trade policies. That’s old news. The interesting thing here is the reiteration of earlier statements that the tariffs could be lifted. Such a formulation does not support the idea of tariffs as an instrument of great-power rivalry. However misguided, they have a specific purpose, and when the administration assesses that purpose has been fulfilled, they will be lifted.

The new Strategic Approach is well worth a read. It is right from the horse’s mouth. It’s a much better read than the many outside explanations of U.S. strategy toward China—and the clearest yet from this administration.

This article by Walter Lohman, Thomas Spoehr, and Terry Miller first appeared in The Daily Signal on June 3, 2020.

Image: Reuters.

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