Washington Has a Bad Case of China ADHD
China is the biggest threat to the U.S.-led global order. But America keeps getting distracted.
As global attention fixes on the Trump administration’s North Korea and Iran policies, the White House is preparing for another consequential policy shift that’s gone almost unnoticed in comparison — this time on China. Reports suggest the Trump administration will soon adopt a more hard-edged strategy toward China’s unfair trade practices and pursuit of American technology, among other issues. In theory, this would represent a major departure from how the United States has approached China, now the world’s second-largest economy and military spender.
Yet the Trump administration’s ability to translate this new approach into sustained action remains in question. Multiple U.S. administrations have tried, and failed, to focus attention on a rising China.
George W. Bush’s national security team came into office determined to elevate China as a long-term strategic focus. The April 2001 collision of a Chinese fighter jet with a U.S. surveillance aircraft — and the tense standoff that followed — reinforced this perspective. By September 2001, the Pentagon was finalizing its Defense Strategy Review, which embraced great power competition with China.
Then 9/11 happened. U.S. attention largely shifted away from China and didn’t return for years. From China’s perspective, the Iraq War further embroiled the United States in the Middle East, keeping open Beijing’s window of opportunity to rise while Washington focused elsewhere.
A decade later, President Barack Obama set out to refocus U.S. attention on Asia. The subsequent rebalance, or pivot, to Asia was intended in part to address Beijing’s rise by shifting attention and resources from the Middle East to Asia. Nevertheless, the Obama administration failed to persuade Congress to ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement and dithered as Beijing constructed artificial islands in the South China Sea. Ultimately, Obama prioritized Chinese cooperation on global issues — such as ratification of the 2016 Paris agreement to combat climate change and support for United Nations Security Council sanctions on Iran — over more competitive bilateral and regional concerns.
Too easily diverted by near-term distractions, American leaders have failed to act as China has become a military and economic powerhouse capable of contesting U.S. leadership not only in Asia, but also increasingly around the world.
China is closing what was once a seemingly unbridgeable military gap with the United States. Beijing’s desire to become the preeminent military power in Asia is neither new nor concealed. Since the late 1990s, Beijing has embarked on a sweeping military modernization program fuelled by double-digit defense budget growth and the acquisition of foreign technology. Although some have called China’s military a “paper tiger,” Xi Jinping made clear at the 19th Party Congress that “a military is built to fight.” Meanwhile, grinding land wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as numerous smaller operations have prevented American leaders from marshaling a comparable level of attention and resources to the military challenge posed by China.
Economically, China is already a peer competitor of the United States. Not content to remain the world’s factory, China is eroding U.S. leadership in high technology, often by engaging in unfair business practices such as illicitly acquiring foreign intellectual property. The large and growing U.S. trade deficit with China has many causes, but one is Beijing’s active embrace of mercantilist trade policies.
American leaders have thus far been too permissive of China’s unfair economic policies. When they have taken a hard line — as President Obama did on China’s use of cyber-enabled economic espionage — tactical concessions by Beijing have defused what could have become a more comprehensive focus on China’s unfair business practices.
Over the past decade, China has increasingly challenged U.S. leadership both in Asia and around the world, particularly in the economic domain. As protectionist sentiment has risen in the United States and Europe, China has begun to present itself as the new champion of globalization. For example, at the World Economic Forum in Davos this year, Xi Jinping offered other countries an opportunity to jump aboard “the express train of China’s development.” China’s global clout was also a major theme of the recently concluded Party Congress, with Xi proclaiming a “new era” in which Beijing would take center stage in the world.
China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative will further reinforce Beijing’s ability to compete with the United States on a more global footing. Under the umbrella of the Belt and Road Initiative, China plans to spend a trillion dollars to link parts of Asia with the Middle East, Europe, and Africa. Beijing’s investments are already transforming its relationships with countries of strategic value to the United States, such as Pakistan and Djibouti, where China recently opened a military base. Even if Beijing makes good on only a fraction of its promised investments, it will make progress toward rewiring large portions of the global economy into a more China-centric order.
If the United States is to maintain its regional and global influence, military advantage, and economic prosperity, American leaders starting with the current administration will have to take a more competitive approach toward China. This does not preclude cooperating in areas of mutual interest. Beijing sees no reason to back down on contentious issues while simultaneously pursuing common objectives through engagement; neither should Washington. Ultimately, China needs cooperation with the United States just as much as (if not more than) the reverse. Implemented smartly, a more competitive approach toward China will not endanger existing — or future — areas of cooperation. Yet whether the United States can focus on China remains in doubt. The Trump administration faces four challenges as it tries to avoid the mistakes of its predecessors.
First, distractions abound. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford reflected this reality when he told Congress that China would pose “the greatest threat to our nation by about 2025.” Although U.S. leaders know that China is the only foreign power capable of remaking the international order, they remain distracted by Russia, Iran, and North Korea, as well as terrorism. These other security concerns undoubtedly require sustained attention, but the world’s 12th, 29th, and 113th largest economies surely do not warrant the same level of focus as a China that is pushing hard to be No. 1.
Second, Beijing encourages Washington to overlook competitive dynamics in the U.S.-China relationship by calling for “win-win” cooperation and dangling the prospect of Chinese support on issues such as North Korea. Beijing hopes that the illusion of progress will divert American attention from potential friction points, such as China’s unfair trade practices and coercion of its neighbors. Too often, this strategy has succeeded.
Third, a successful China policy ultimately requires getting the region right, not the other way around. U.S. allies and partners don’t want conflict with Beijing, so tough talk on China risks losing friends abroad, even as it wins political points at home. Instead, regional states want to see Washington stand up for international rules and shared values, while supporting economic growth. With U.S. participation in the TPP off the table, the administration will have to put forward a new economic agenda. But post-TPP, many regional partners question whether negotiating bilateral trade deals with the United States is in their interest. An effective regional economic strategy must uphold a rules-based order and compete with China where necessary, all while promoting a better understanding of the enormous importance of U.S. trade and investment to the region despite China’s economic rise.
Fourth, strategy is merely aspirational without the resources to execute it. Competing priorities and disagreements with Congress limited the Obama administration’s ability to execute its ambitious Asia strategy; the same traps endanger the Trump administration as well. The current administration is also hampered by the lack of political appointees in key Asia jobs. Discord in the executive branch, as well as in Congress, undermines perceptions of U.S. commitment and credibility. The forthcoming National Security Strategy and related documents are important signals of intent, but personnel and resources are the more reliable policy indicators.
Where does this leave the Trump administration?
The chief danger for U.S. leaders is that their strategic appetites will outpace their ability to execute their plans. If crises of the day dominate leaders’ attention, Washington will continue to be outmaneuvered by Beijing. With Trump’s first trip to Asia as president just days away, now is the time for the administration to elevate the U.S. focus on China and devote substantial resources to implementing a positive regional agenda. A planned presidential speech that will call for a “free and open Indo-Pacific” is a positive sign — if translated into tangible action.
U.S. presidents typically get one try to get Asia strategy right — if the Trump administration lets this opportunity slip away, it is unlikely to get a second chance.
Zack Cooper is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is also co-director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy and co-host of War on the Rocks’ Net Assessment podcast.