The administration is torn between short-sighted dealmakers and zero-sum nationalist hardliners.
Donald Trump is, by his own admission, not terribly analytical or deliberative. In a recent Time magazine interview, he declared, “I’m a very instinctual person, but my instinct turns out to be right.” Unfortunately, when it comes to foreign policy, his instincts often contradict one another in potentially dangerous ways. Even worse, the impulse to act on preconceived notions, rather than thinking through problems carefully, isn’t limited to the president. It pervades his administration — especially when dealing with the most consequential bilateral ties in the world: U.S.-China relations.
Trump entered the White House with the most uncertain China policy of any administration in modern memory. More than two months into his presidency, and a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping fast approaching, the administration has generated more questions than answers. It has not yet developed a coherent strategy for engaging China, nor does it have clear policies for the Asia-Pacific.
This could be forgiven — if not for the fact that senior officials in the administration harbor two extreme sets of instincts, both of which are at odds with long-standing, bipartisan U.S. policy toward China. Members of Trump’s team from a traditional big-business background — including senior advisor Jared Kushner and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — hold instincts that are highly transactional and potentially accommodationist. According to this business-first approach, the United States should appease Beijing’s desire for an expanded sphere of influence in Asia in exchange for help on discrete issues such as North Korea or the bilateral trade deficit. The second set of instincts is held by the economic nationalists — most notably chief strategist Steve Bannon and Peter Navarro, the head of the White House National Trade Council — who are thoroughly hostile to China’s economic and military rise.
The U.S.-China relationship has grown increasingly challenging to manage in recent years, and new ideas should, in theory, be welcome. Both of these approaches, however, bring with them short-term and long-term dangers for U.S. interests and for the region.
The transactional approach to China accepts that it has significant sway on issues of great concern and seeks to elicit Beijing’s assistance, even if it means signing away other U.S. interests in the process. It is not clear whether top administration officials hold these views immutably, but it is nonetheless evident that deal-making instincts have prevailed in a few notable interactions.
The clearest manifestation of this attitude came during Tillerson’s recent trip to Asia, when his statements parroted Xi’s own vision for the U.S.-China relationship. Tillerson repeatedly (and erroneously) stated, “Since the historic opening of relations between our two countries more than 40 years ago, the U.S.-China relationship has been guided by an understanding of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation.” That paragraph could have come straight from Chinese state media and was warmly applauded by the Beijing papers (although a few columnists warned of taking this too seriously). The verbiage may sound entirely innocuous but in fact has worrying implications.
This Chinese phraseology was first introduced by Xi at his 2013 summit with former President Barack Obama as the “new model of major-country relations.” The original formulation includes respect for “core interests,” an amorphous list of issues Beijing considers to be national security interests that it would use force to defend. It originally included Tibet, Taiwan, and Xinjiang but has evolved over the years.
While the South China Sea is not officially on this list, in private Chinese officials sometimes use a syllogism: “Sovereignty and territorial integrity are core interests, and China has inalienable sovereignty over the South China Sea, so….” Tillerson pointedly did not use the phrase “core interests,” but to China, the object of “mutual respect” is self-evident. The “new model” implicitly acknowledges that the United States is in decline and essentially envisions a Chinese sphere of influence in Asia.
In 2013-2014, the Obama administration cautiously accepted the slogan at first, only to reconsider and wisely discard it, omitting any mention of the phrase from its statements. The Obama team’s experience with this issue makes Tillerson’s choice of words all the more mystifying, because career China experts at the State Department and National Security Council are very familiar with this language and understood well what it implied.
After Tillerson returned from Beijing, the State Department spokesman had the opportunity to walk back his comments. Instead, he affirmed that Tillerson had chosen his words carefully. Media reporting suggests that Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who has set himself up as a potentially key interlocutor with Beijing outside traditional channels, had played a critical role in pushing the language. Kushner, who lacks any formal China experience and wears many other hats within the administration, may be negotiating further recognition of China’s “core interests,” as well as Xi’s signature foreign-policy initiative, the “One Belt, One Road” global infrastructure investment plan.
Why would Tillerson — or Kushner, who has strong business ties with Beijing — revive these phrases and make them the bumper sticker of his first engagement with China? Why would the White House, as the Washington Post alleges, allow Chinese officials to draft the initial understandings between the Communist Party and the Trump administration?
One explanation may be instincts learned from Tillerson and Kushner’s business experience in China. Foreign firms in China rapidly learn from their local partners to curry favor with the government by repeating its own preferred phrases; under Hu Jintao, there was a period when every foreign company seeking business in China spoke of how Beijing was working toward a “harmonious society”; since Xi took power, firms have fallen over themselves to promote the “China dream.” Those instincts might work for the kind of bootlicking needed for firms to be allowed into the Chinese market, but they’re actively counterproductive for national leaders.
But every indication is that this is a directed strategy of a kind and that the answer may lie in “win-win cooperation” — the pursuit of a better deal. The accommodationists’ embrace of China’s framework sets the stage for a bargain in which Beijing takes bolder action on North Korea or announces investments in the United States in exchange for U.S. deference on other Chinese interests. If some type of “deal” took place, however, its terms remain a secret, which unsettles allies in the region, as well as observers at home. Indeed, both the U.S. president and his son-in-law have significant business interests in China, raising the possibility that Tillerson’s rhetorical concessions in Beijing reaped no gains for American foreign policy whatsoever. Far more worrisome than Tillerson’s words themselves, and any echo thereof at Mar-a-Lago later this week, is the fact that they may signal that some transaction took place, far from the public eye.
Yet also coursing through the administration is the fire of “economic nationalism,” represented by Bannon and Navarro. These advisors view all of international politics — trade as well as security — in zero-sum terms. Under this lens, the rise of China can only be starkly inimical to American welfare and interests.
Indeed, Bannon showed a deep-seated hostility toward Beijing, as editor of the far-right media outlet Breitbart and host of its daily radio program. Bannon views China as having stolen American jobs through unfair trade practices and corporate malfeasance, saying it has long conducted “economic warfare” against the United States. The U.S. trade deficit with China is “the beating heart of our problem,” and China’s holdings of U.S. sovereign debt put America “in hock to our enemies.”
Bannon’s sentiments on security issues are no more sanguine: He views conflict between the United States and China as inevitable. He speaks about U.S.-China relations in terms of the Peloponnesian War and has compared present-day Asia to the “matchbox” that set off World War I — although he is hardly alone in these comparisons. More striking are his statements about “the military confrontation [China is] obviously trying to drive us to in the South China Sea” and his confidence that “we’re going to war in the South China Sea in five or 10 years.”
Most disconcerting of all is Bannon’s tendency to view relations with China as a harsh “clash of civilizations.” In a 2014 speech to a right-wing Catholic forum, he said the United States faces an “expansionist China” that is “motivated, arrogant, and [thinks] the Judeo-Christian West is in retreat.” Race and identity occasionally tinge his other public comments on China, including his disgust for the preponderance of East (and South) Asian immigrants in America’s world-leading tech industry and a glancing suggestion that China may use its emigrants as tools of expansion.
Navarro seems to share many of Bannon’s troubling China views, as well as a lack of formal expertise on the country. The former economics professor has written books and produced films with such hyperbolic titles as Crouching Tiger: What China’s Militarism Means for the World, The Coming China Wars, and Death by China: Confronting the Dragon — A Global Call to Action. He has also called for a 43 percent tariff on Chinese imports, which would likely lead to a global recession if implemented.
America has had China hawks in positions of power before, and a Hillary Clinton administration would likely have taken a harder line on Beijing than the Obama administration. What’s different about the nationalist group in the Trump administration is that they specifically and actively oppose the rise of China and see the relationship in zero-sum terms. Their stated policy aspirations are to unravel supposedly harmful U.S.-China economic interdependence to the greatest possible extent — and to contain China’s military expansion wherever possible. This would mark a dramatic reversal of American foreign policy. While hyperbolic critics have long characterized U.S. Asia policy as a “containment” strategy aimed at China — and the two sides no doubt compete over many issues — no foreign country has done more to facilitate China’s development than the United States. In reality, every presidential administration since Richard Nixon has welcomed “the rise of a China that is peaceful, stable, prosperous, and a responsible player in global affairs.” And with good reason. When this aspiration is discarded and replaced with nationalist rhetoric and threats, it heightens anxieties on both sides of the Pacific and can make confident predictions of war like Bannon’s into self-fulfilling prophecies.
These two starkly different sets of instincts are worsened by the policy cipher in the Oval Office. Trump has articulated few consistent views on the U.S.-China relationship. He has, however, made explicit the transactional approach that Tillerson only implied, such as when he said he would condition U.S. relations with Taiwan on whether “we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade.” Nonetheless, on the campaign trail, Trump used China (along with Mexico and the Islamic world) as a political prop: less of a real place than as a symbol of the foreign forces that had taken advantage of America and must be brought to heel on the latter’s road back to greatness. The now-president said, in Bannon-esque terms, “We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country.” In the run-up to Xi’s visit, Trump has been back on Twitter slamming China’s protectionism, predicting that the summit meeting would be a “very difficult one in that we can no longer have massive trade deficits … and job losses. American companies must be prepared to look at other alternatives.” This followed the signing of an executive order to scrutinize U.S. trade deficits, particular those with China.
The inability to reconcile these conflicting paradigms may already be holding up straightforward policies designed to demonstrate U.S. commitment to upholding freedom of the seas. Moreover, because the administration has not yet filled its senior Asia positions, there are few experts who can even attempt to steer the administration toward a more predictable course.
If either of these sets of views ascends and crystallizes into policy, this would gravely damage U.S. interests and welfare, as well as the security of the Asia-Pacific region. The United States and its allies can afford neither to unilaterally cede important interests for short-term gains and incredible commitments nor to provoke an economic or military conflict with the world’s second-largest power.
An even worse outcome would be if both of these instincts guided U.S. policy simultaneously, leaving it dangerously indeterminate and inviting miscalculation and crisis. For instance, if officials do not clarify Tillerson’s transactional comments in Beijing, then Xi might conclude that Washington has finally accepted the Chinese conception of “core interests” and assume that the door was open for further expansion in the South China Sea. If China took a step in this direction, however, and began to build extensive military facilities on Scarborough Shoal, distressing the Philippines, a U.S. ally, the economic nationalists might urge reciprocal escalation. With the South China Sea now a key issue in China’s own nationalist narratives, it would find it hard to back down, raising the risk of a major conflict between the world’s two largest militaries.
With the Trump-Xi summit fast approaching, serious national security professionals, including Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, must insist that the administration start to craft a coherent strategy for engaging China. They will surely not accomplish this before the leaders meet this week, but they should nonetheless press the president to identify specific objectives and advocate for policies that avoid the Scylla of transactional accommodation and the Charybdis of reckless escalation.
Washington should insist on China’s cooperation on shared challenges like North Korea but make clear that it will not buy Beijing’s help at the cost of vital U.S. or allied interests. It should make prudent investments in robust deterrence without assuming the inevitability of conflict. It can demand fairer terms on bilateral trade without unleashing an economic war that would ravage the globe.
When the leaders of the world’s two largest powers meet, dangerous instincts cannot substitute for policy and strategy. Xi Jinping will easily recognize and take advantage of an impulsive and ill-prepared counterpart. And after April 6, if cooler, more careful heads do not prevail and these reckless proclivities pull and push at policy, the cost may be no less than America’s standing in Asia and the peace and stability of the entire region.
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