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The New Pessimism of U.S. Strategy towards China

December 28, 2017

Last week, the Trump administration published a new National Security Strategy that represents a tectonic shift in U.S. foreign policy toward China. The new strategy not only strikes a markedly more confrontational tone toward China, but shifts the fundamental logic behind why it poses a threat to U.S. interests. Three assumptions implicitly or explicitly undergird the logic of this new strategic pessimism: First, China will not change its model of authoritarian governance. Second, China seeks to export its model of authoritarian governance. And third, China’s exportation strategy challenges the U.S. way of life.

However, for all its rhetorical bluster, the new National Security Strategy offers few novel policy initiatives. Moreover, while these changes are likely to be watched closely by government officials in China, the contradictions between the text of the strategy and President Donald Trump’s diplomatic messaging are likely to undermine the potential of producing meaningful results. If anything, the document contributes to an emerging pattern of conflicting signals sent by Washington that is likely to generate confusion in Beijing and the Asia-Pacific.

The New Strategic Pessimism

As a whole, the most striking difference in the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy is its fundamental assumptions regarding competition and cooperation in the international system. Across different administrations from both political parties, Washington has traditionally framed its foreign policy as one of at least aspirational cooperation. Under the new strategy, however, the United States has entered a new era of cutthroat, zero-sum competition.

For example, compare the frequency of some key terms in the 2017 version to averages calculated from previous iterations from 1997 to 2015. Historically, on average, the U.S. National Security Strategy uses the terms “cooperation” and “cooperate” a little over 50 times and the terms “competition” and “compete” about 8 times in each document. Trump’s iteration is strikingly inverted: Cooperative terms are used 35 times less and competitive terms are used 22 times more than the historical average. At least since 1997, past documents have always talked more about cooperation than competition — roughly seven cooperative terms for every one competitive term. Trump’s is the first and only strategy since at least the Clinton administration to flip the balance.

Great power competition with China is front and center in the Trump administration’s vision of world politics. However, unlike previous administrations, there is little emphasis on China’s rise, which is instead taken for granted. The central question in the new National Security Strategy is: What will China do with its newfound power and influence? In other words, what are China’s intentions?

The document’s answer is perhaps the most pessimistic and least ambiguous of any major U.S. foreign policy document in recent history: “China and Russia challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity.” While it would be naïve to believe that officials in past administrations did not harbor similar concerns regarding China’s intentions, one is hard pressed to find a public U.S. policy document that so openly and bluntly describes the China threat.

The Logic of Adopting the New Strategic Pessimism

The new National Security Strategy is unique not only in terms of the pessimistic conclusions it draws, but the logic by which those conclusions are reached. For example, the document places unprecedented emphasis on Chinese military modernization and activities. The 2015 iteration, following China’s more assertive posture in the South China Sea, described these tensions merely as “reminders of the risks of escalation.” In the new strategy, however, Chinese actions in the South China Sea not only evince revisionist and expansionist intentions, but Chinese military modernization in and of itself necessarily “risks diminishing the sovereignty of many states in the Indo-Pacific.” In other words, the strategy envisions no scenario in which China can achieve both military strength without infringing on the interests of its neighbors.

Pointing out China’s military rise and the threat it poses to the sovereignty of states in the Asia-Pacific is not new to official U.S. documents. Nor is it wrong. The question — and what is new in this document — is where and how China’s military rise is discussed. Thus far, official discussion has been largely confined to Department of Defense annual reports on China. However, historically, such language rarely penetrated the National Security Strategy, perhaps because it is viewed as a more strategic document that fuses together diplomatic and military perspectives. For example, the national security strategies released between 1997 and 2015 had, on average, only five uses of the words “sovereign” or “sovereignty”; the 2017 version includes 23.

While this trend is in part explained by Trump’s broader political platform, it also reflects new focus on China. For example, the Trump administration’s narrative of restoring U.S. sovereignty is linked to what it perceives as a broader reaction to growing Chinese influence. The document suggests Chinese actions are spurring “states throughout the region” to call for “a regional order respectful of sovereignty and independence.” Even in the Western Hemisphere, the new National Security Strategy argues that as “China seeks to pull the region into its orbit,” democratic states throughout the region share a common interest in “confronting threats to their sovereignty.”

The logic of the China threat in the new strategy is distinct in another critical way: an alleged civilizational struggle between two models of governance. Competition between the United States and China is not one between great powers that can generally co-exist in the international system. Rather, the new strategy suggests that U.S. competition with China is part and parcel of a broader struggle between models of domestic governance. Comparing the China threat to that posed by Iran, North Korea, and jihadist terrorism, the new strategy suggests competition with China is one “between free and repressive visions of world order” and fundamentally a contest between “those who value human dignity and freedom and those who oppress individuals and enforce uniformity.”

Indeed, the U.S. official stance is that China is exporting two features of authoritarian governance that threaten the U.S. way of life: corruption and state surveillance. China’s erosion of U.S. security is directly linked to its capacity to “control information and data” that allows it to “repress their societies and expand their influence.”

The Logic of Rejecting the Old Strategic Optimism

In the new National Security Strategy, the Trump administration has not merely placed new emphasis on differences between U.S. and Chinese domestic political systems. It explicitly rejects past U.S. strategies that have attempted to attenuate the effects of a rising authoritarian state.

Models of domestic governance loom in the shadows of nearly every past U.S. national security strategy. However, since the Reagan administration, national security strategies have offered a more sanguine view that one of two strategies would overcome persisting domestic differences.

The first was that integration into the international community would socialize China into a more liberal actor. Some argued that adaptation of market principles would push China toward democracy and, implicitly, a less threatening adversary. For example, George W. Bush’s 2006 National Security Strategy stated that: “China’s leaders … cannot let their population increasingly experience the freedoms to buy, sell, and produce, while denying them the rights to assemble, speak, and worship.” Others posited that the benefits of bilateral diplomatic engagement on topics as broad as global warming, arms control and North Korea could persuade China to at least adopt policies closer to U.S. interests. While the boldness of these claims varied across administrations, at the most optimistic, they posited that: “In time, China will find that social and political freedom is the only source of [national] greatness” (2002) and that “change is inevitable in China” (1991).

In the new strategy, however, the Trump administration directly and categorically assigns failing marks to these past initiatives. The new strategy suggests that past hopes of transforming China into a “benign” and “trustworthy” partner through international or bilateral engagement simply “turned out to be false.”

The Meaning of the New Strategic Pessimism

If sustained, the new logic by which the national security strategy draws inferences regarding China’s intentions represents a watershed in U.S. foreign policy. Changing the narrative on Chinese intentions and the nature of the China threat ties the hands of U.S. policymakers in new ways. The terms of diplomatic engagement with an ideological competitor are typically different than with a normal geopolitical competitor. As such, policies implemented in accordance with the new strategic pessimism would imply curtailing future diplomatic engagement — not only because diplomacy has limited persuasive potential, but because diplomatic cooperation connotes at least a trace of appeasement. Admittedly, the new strategy does leave open the possibility of cooperation with China in “areas of mutual interest,” although it is unclear where the Trump administration sees these issues for cooperation.

Moreover, the new strategic pessimism of the National Security Strategy will likely confirm a concern held by Chinese elites, particularly since the 1990s, that the United States seeks to change its domestic political system. By publicly framing the roots of U.S.-Chinese competition in ideological terms, Washington signals a perceived long-term incompatibility between disparate domestic regimes. Without proper management by the Trump administration, this could prime Beijing to double down on efforts to ensure the survival of its single-party model.

In concrete terms, there are few novel policies to complement the rhetorical pivot in the new National Security Strategy. Consider some of the “priority actions” the document offers that might apply to China: redoubling commitment to established alliances and partners, reinforcing U.S. commitment to freedom of the seas, pursuing bilateral trade agreements, building a “network of states dedicated to free markets,” and maintaining ties with Taiwan in accordance with the “One China” policy. Even a generous reading of these proposals is not clearly distinguishable from status quo U.S. policies and initiatives. In short, it appears that the Trump administration has decided to reframe the future trajectory of U.S.-Chinese relationship without a serious consideration of what this rhetorical shift might entail.

The Fate of the New Strategic Pessimism

Still, it is worth considering the benefits of publicly framing China in more adversarial terms. Indeed, some see the new National Security Strategy as a necessary first step in rethinking how the United States should address the rise of China.

However, it is also worth considering that publicly-released strategic documents are not merely a means of communicating information within the U.S. government to establish a common policy framework. When publicized, they become one type of signaling or messaging device between states. Such strategies communicate information to other states on U.S. interests and preferences. Chinese government analysts will undoubtedly dissect each word on the new national security strategy — just as U.S. observers note even small changes in Chinese official national defense documents.

In the best-case scenario, one might hope that because the National Security Strategy serves as a type of signal to China, a more confrontational tone in the document might more clearly convey a U.S. desire for China to cease certain actions that promulgate its authoritarian governance model. Such signals would be entirely reasonable and necessary as China increases such activity.

However, it is unclear how publicly declaring China part of an international movement to undermine democratic governance will foster meaningful change. There are at least two reasons to be pessimistic about the prospects of the new strategic pessimism to achieve such outcomes.

First, the strategy affords China little room for course correction. While noting that China’s intentions are “not necessarily fixed,” the overwhelming message is that the Chinese regime is inextricably linked to international revisionism. In other words, based solely on the document, it is difficult to see what the Trump administration would view as non-revisionist Chinese behavior. If previous strategies placed too much faith in the power of diplomatic persuasion, the new strategy leaves almost no room for it — even if supported by improved U.S. military power.

Second, the new strategy adds to a growing list of mixed signals and messages coming from the Trump administration. The new strategic pessimism inherent in the document stands in stark contrast to President Donald Trump’s rhetoric during his recent diplomatic visit to China. While observers do not currently know with certainty the content of private exchanges between Trump and Xi, the public messaging strongly signals presidential complacence, if not outright admiration, for Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power within the Communist Party.

Of course, the meaning and relevance of any national security strategy is subject to interpretation. Chinese observers might dismiss these rhetorical changes to the personalities or bureaucratic affiliations of the narrow set of individuals within the Trump administration who prepared the document. Indeed, given Trump’s messaging, management style, and recent White House statements, it is questionable how closely the president monitored the document’s development.

Even Trump’s speech announcing the release of the National Security Strategy was markedly less confrontational on China. While noting that China challenges “American influence, values, and wealth,” President Trump’s remarks suggest that the most effective U.S. reaction is to “build a great partnership with those and other countries.” These subtle contradictions provide all the more reason to doubt that the new National Security Strategy will produce meaningful results.


Tyler Jost is a PhD candidate in the Department of Government at Harvard University. Beginning in the fall of 2018, he will serve as an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.

Image: Lee Tang

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