- By Ely RatnerEly Ratner is the Maurice R. Greenberg senior fellow in China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was deputy national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden from 2015 to 2017 and previously served in the Office of Chinese and Mongolian Affairs at the State Department and as a professional staff member on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. His current work focuses on U.S.-China relations, regional security in East Asia, and U.S. national security policy in Asia.
From a White House largely defined by caprice, there’s been a consistent message that it’s time to get tough on China: to push back in the South China Sea, to challenge China’s unfair trade and investment practices, and to demand more from Beijing on North Korea. To be fair, this is mostly overdue and not dissimilar to key lines of effort that would have characterized Hillary Clinton’s China policy.
If not managed correctly, however, driving a harder line with Beijing could easily result in a self-defeating confrontation, if not conflict, that severely damages the interests of the United States. This is not a reason to be timid or risk-averse, but instead an argument for a more disciplined, coordinated, and comprehensive approach to Asia policy than the Trump administration has evinced to date. As National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster embarks on what may be a months-long process of Asia policy development, here are six steps the Trump administration should take now to begin laying the groundwork for a more concerted competition with China.
1. Uphold the letter of the law: The trick with a successful tough-on-China policy is finding points of pressure that won’t lead to spiraling escalation. One of the many lessons from the Obama administration is that Beijing’s response to Washington’s pushback was often muted when U.S. action was firmly grounded in international and domestic laws that were neither indiscriminate nor China-specific. There is plenty of low-hanging fruit (and plans on the shelf) for the Trump administration to more vigorously enforce and exercise the rules of the road, including through freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, demands for more faithful implementation of U.N. Security Council resolutions on North Korea, trade enforcement measures, Taiwan arms sales, and penalties for Chinese companies engaging in cyber theft for commercial gain. This is a target-rich environment that ought to be exploited before veering off into actions that Beijing will perceive as arbitrary and solely designed to hurt China. If U.S. policymakers are prudent and selective in this regard, Beijing’s howls will be more bark than bite.
2. Get your message straight: Trump’s proclivity for unpredictability and confusion will not serve him well with China. Instead, Beijing is far more likely to respond in line with Washington’s wishes when U.S. pressure, threats, and incentives are clear and consistent. This is equally true for allies and partners who face potential risks both domestically and in their relationship with Beijing for supporting U.S. efforts. Too often, however, Trump administration signaling on Asia has been muddled. This has been particularly blatant on the South China Sea, where Trump, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Press Secretary Sean Spicer, and Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon have all provided comments and quasi-policy proposals that are either incoherent or at tension with one another. This reflects an administration that failed to develop actual foreign policies on the campaign trail and did little to make up for lost time during the transition. Reasons aside, incoherence is a recipe for instability in the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait and elsewhere — as U.S. allies and partners, as well as China, will quickly begin to hedge and probe in counterproductive ways. It is therefore imperative to start an inclusive interagency process on the principal flashpoints in Asia (South China Sea, East China Sea, North Korea, and Taiwan) that, in the first instance, develops a coordinated messaging strategy sufficient to buy time, even as the nuances of policy are further developed.
3. Restore U.S. alliances: Washington’s security partners are sources of considerable leverage with Beijing. Yet it’s little secret that Trump’s repeated excoriations of military alliances have rattled U.S. allies and raised concerns about his administration’s commitment to the region. These worries have been tempered by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s successful visit to the United States, which was further buttressed by a flurry of reassurance-focused meetings with counterparts from Asia by Vice President Mike Pence, Mattis, and Tillerson. But much work remains, particularly with a diplomatically distant Thailand and an Australia that is rightfully smarting from repeated missteps by the Obama administration and an early fumbled phone call between Trump and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. The alliance most in need of repair, however, is also the one that has received the least attention from the Trump administration: the Philippines. Here, policy drift will not suffice because, for better or worse, the Philippines has an outsized role in U.S. strategy in East Asia. In short order, the Trump administration should schedule a series of high-profile Cabinet-level meetings with Philippine officials to reset the alliance and stem Manila’s slide toward Beijing. Trump should also enlist Abe — who has established a good rapport with the capricious President Rodrigo Duterte — to serve as an interlocutor between Washington and Manila.
4. Show up in Southeast Asia: Arguably the most important innovation of the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia was the rebalancing of attention not only to, but also within, the region — from Northeast to Southeast. The Trump administration will almost assuredly devote less energy to ASEAN and its member countries, but there is still a mission-critical set of activities that is required for the United States to avoid ceding undue influence to China. Specifically, it would settle a lot of nerves in the region if the Trump administration signaled its intent to meet the following marks: The president should commit now to attend this fall’s APEC summit in Vietnam and East Asia Summit in the Philippines; Pence should stop in Indonesia if and when he makes his first reassurance tour to Asia this spring; Tillerson should plan a large Southeast Asia swing around this summer’s ASEAN Regional Forum; and Mattis should follow former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s lead in hosting the ASEAN defense ministers in Hawaii later this year. Remember, 80 percent of success in Southeast Asia is showing up.
5. Reset the frame: However irrelevant to U.S. policymakers, big concepts matter a lot in the U.S.-China relationship because leaders in Beijing use diplomatic sloganeering as both implementing guidance and propaganda tools. This has been the case with the prevailing notion of a “New Type of Great Power Relations,” which Chinese officials introduced during the first Obama administration and continue touting as a “consensus” between Washington and Beijing. At first begrudgingly accepted and then ultimately ignored by the United States, this festering concept continues to undermine U.S. interests in Asia by sending harmful signals to Beijing and the wider region that an anemic United States has resigned itself to accommodating China. In turn, Beijing has felt emboldened to challenge the United States and drive wedges between Washington and its friends in Asia. Enough is enough. Senior Trump administration officials should make it a top priority to dispense with this concept as soon as possible, first by politely and privately asking Beijing to refrain from using it, and then, if necessary, by publicly denouncing it. The longer they wait to do this, the harder and more awkward it will get.
6. Build ties with Beijing: Finally, none of this will succeed without serious and sustained dialogue with China’s leaders. Deterrence and compellence won’t work unless Washington can communicate clearly and authoritatively with Beijing. Fortunately, there’s little need to reinvent the wheel in this regard. The institutionalization of the U.S.-China relationship (a sharp contrast to U.S.-Russia ties) is an important Obama legacy that will serve the Trump administration well if it decides to incur greater risk and tension with China. As a starting point, the Trump administration should commit early and set dates for a leader-level meeting, such as the Strategic Security Dialogue and the Asia-Pacific Consultations. (Of course, this also puts a premium on moving more rapidly to nominate deputy secretaries and assistant secretaries of state and defense). The Strategic and Economic Dialogue should be pared back but not cancelled.
A tough China policy need not result in a trade war or military conflict, but it very well may if the Trump administration doesn’t match its native instincts on China with a more sophisticated, principled, and comprehensive Asia strategy. There’s a right way to get off on the wrong foot with China.
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