Washington Needs a Bold Rethink of Its China Strategy
In a recent Rose Garden briefing, President Donald Trump directly challenged the leadership of the People’s Republic of China. He announced the United States would depart from the World Health Organization and doubled down on American economic independence. He called for suspending more Chinese student visas under the auspices of curbing espionage. He announced the end of special economic treatment for Hong Kong and the sanctioning of officials who restrict freedoms in the territory. These policy shifts were all consistent with the new strategic approach the administration released nine days before the president took to the podium.
The United States and China appear to be at a critical juncture. For some, the United States must stand up to Beijing’s efforts to leverage the pandemic to divide democracies and challenge the prevailing world order. For others, domestic politics and a history of misinterpretation on both sides make it difficult to make concessions and change the relationship. Others see a middle path where the United States can compete while avoiding catastrophe and dangerous escalation pathways.
As academics and military officers, we see a need to rethink the Trump administration’s China strategy. The current strategy does not reflect the long-term approach many China watchers have called for and instead focuses on short-term posturing at the expense of collective balancing and comprehensive pressure likely to shape decision-making in Beijing. The U.S. policy community, American military, and broader national security enterprise are racing headlong into an unnecessary confrontation at the worst possible moment. This thinking puts a premium on coercion and autarky at the expense of upholding the international order and finding points of engagement and cooperation. It sees zero-sum relationships where complex networks exist that change how strategy is practiced in the 21st century. Interdependence is a complex reality that makes decoupling difficult and creates dilemmas for both Beijing and Washington.
America cannot solve 21st-century strategic problems with 19th-century views of economic statecraft and a narrow 20th-century view of great-power relations. The United States ought to find creative ways to compete for influence within the Asia-Pacific, primarily through economic, diplomatic, and informational instruments while rebalancing resources to address the new reality of a pandemic, civil unrest, and economic recession. The guiding vision should be to strengthen international institutions. It should balance foreign policy with critical domestic issues like public health, economic security, and a growing sense of social injustice.
The New China Strategy
The administration’s new strategic approach toward China pulls together themes from 2019 Department of Defense and Department of State strategy documents as well as the 2017 National Security Strategy and 2018 National Defense Strategy. The authors of the strategy should be applauded for making key policy assumptions and strategic priorities public, accessible, and open to debate. In many ways, this stream of documents transcends the polarized, partisan divide gripping Washington to illuminate two largely bipartisan perspectives on managing great-power relationships in the 21st century. One camp puts a premium on international order and integrating China into this order as a means of ensuring global peace and prosperity, even at the cost of some uncomfortable concessions. Another camp emphasizes containing China and limiting its ability to overturn this order in favor of a new era of mercantile, digital authoritarian states. There is a tendency to overestimate Chinese power – a common pitfall in American strategy. Many observers also tend to underestimate the complexity of domestic politics in China while failing to reflect on the intersection of foreign and domestic politics in the United States brought on by trade disputes, income inequality, social issues, migration, and global public health concerns.
The current strategy mainly falls into this second camp: China is a threat to vital American interests. Therefore, the United States needs a new competitive approach that improves “the resiliency of [American] institutions, alliances, and partnerships to prevail against the challenges the [People’s Republic of China] presents” and “compels Beijing to cease or reduce actions harmful to the United States’ vital, national interests and those of [its] allies and partners.” Consistent with the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy, this approach expands the competitive space, integrating multiple instruments of power in pursuit of resilience and coercion. It outlines steps to protect the American people and way of life through efforts like the Department of Justice’s China Initiative and expanded FBI investigations into economic espionage alongside efforts by agencies ranging from the National Institutes of Health to the Department of Energy to secure federally-funded intellectual property. Parallel efforts seek to block Chinese firms from buying sensitive U.S. companies and expand the Department of Homeland Security’s effort to stop counterfeit goods. Under the heading of promoting American prosperity, the current strategy lays out an integrated approach to trade negotiations and advancing U.S. leads in technology areas like artificial intelligence and 5G while also advancing America’s economic access to emerging markets. The strategy calls for preserving peace through strength by modernizing the nuclear triad and increasing investments in hypersonics, space, and cyber capabilities as a means of developing “more lethal fires based on resilient, adaptive, and cost-effective platforms.” Of note, these investments coincide with modernization programs in each branch of service. Peace through strength seems to mean a new arms race at a time when budgets are sure to be stressed by addressing a global pandemic and its economic fallout.
We spent the last year examining modern grand strategy and U.S.-Chinese relations. Our interpretations are the minority report from those efforts. They offer a point of departure for analyzing the strategic approach toward China in terms of convergence, divergence, and their implications for the future of great-power competition in the 21st century. We agree with the call for strengthening a rules-based order, working with partners and allies, and applying a broader range of instruments of power. At the same time, we do not see China as the threat the Trump administration is making it out to be. We also worry the approach risks a dangerous, escalatory path that is unnecessary and self-defeating at a time when Americans are more concerned about jobs, racial issues, and their health than a new Cold War. At the level of core assumptions, we find that the new Trump administration strategy risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. It portrays a zero-sum relationship and offers Chinese elites few options other than submitting to Washington or embracing the competitive paradigm and focusing on weakening the United States and undermining its interests globally. Military leaders in the United States are making things worse by fanning the flames of war and calling for increased budgets and more aggressive force posture.
Points of Convergence
The primary strength of the Trump administration strategy is the emphasis it places on allies and partners. States can gain an enduring position of advantage in great-power competitions through building robust networks of like-minded nations. Strong international institutions are the best answer to the China challenge. That said, recent U.S. actions are inconsistent with the strategy.
In a 2019 survey of ASEAN leaders, the majority of respondents had little to no confidence that “the United States will ‘do the right thing’ in contributing to global peace, security, prosperity and governance.” Reasons cited for the loss of confidence included U.S. political dysfunction and Washington’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Iranian nuclear deal, and the Paris climate agreement. At present, traditional U.S. partners in the region appreciate having a counterweight to China. Still, they do not see the United States playing a constructive role on issues that are important to them. U.S. strategic documents make it sound as if U.S. policy is to support the current international order; however, our allies view America as eroding it.
Washington’s actions need to match its rhetoric. U.S. documents cannot call out Beijing’s attempts to undercut an international, rule-based order while America blows up trade deals and walks away from key global institutions. Washington’s failure to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, for example, undermines U.S. efforts to challenge China’s actions in the South China Sea. Similarly, the U.S. refusal to appoint new judges to the World Trade Organization has disabled its dispute resolution mechanism, even as the administration’s China strategy calls for increased use of that mechanism.
Hypocrisy is the death of strategy. Instead of disparaging multilateral organizations, U.S. leaders should use them as vehicles to promote American interests and values. The president explicitly places America first, undermining the U.S.-built international order and the international organizations that support it. Alternatively Trump administration strategy documents claim to uphold an international system the United States helped build. Rhetorical support for alliances does not match the president’s deeds. Washington ought to resume a leading role in collective security arrangements, international financial institutions, and U.N. organizations that set standards and norms, rather than leaving the field. To change China’s behavior, the United States will need to work within — not against — the international system. One cannot do that with a policy of withdrawal and strategic communication via Twitter.
Points of Divergence
There are five fatal flaws in the Trump administration’s strategy. First, it casts great-power relations in overly narrow, zero-sum terms that feed nationalism and domestic log-rolling coalitions in the United States and China at the expense of identifying points of productive engagement. The United States can and should compete with China, but it should do so through international forums, including arms control regimes, and alliances that moderate tensions. Peace through strength is not mutually exclusive with engagement, cooperation on shared interests, and clear signaling.
Second, the strategy misses a fundamental asymmetry of national interests at play between the United States and China. The elites of the Chinese Communist Party are more concerned about their legitimacy and borders than U.S. leaders. For them, issues in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the South China Sea are vital interests, whereas despite their economic importance these issues for the U.S. public are peripheral at best. The rise of an authoritarian China does not threaten the survival of the United States. Climate change, enduring social cleavages like racism, growing income inequality, and political polarization are challenges to the nation that transcend categorization as strictly foreign or domestic threats. Grand strategy has to grapple with these complex transnational issues.
Third, the strategy takes a narrow approach to coercion. The rhetoric of coercion is limited to compellence – taking actions that pressure a rival to alter their course of action – and misses the prospect of coercive diplomacy and applying both positive and negative inducements. There are no clear positive inducements, confidence-building measures, or mechanisms to enable cooperation, just a series of threats that gradually increase pressure on Chinese leadership on all sides. The plan seems to imply there is no offramp, just a series of escalatory measures meant to break the will of Chinese leaders. That is a dangerous gamble, and frankly an unnecessary one, in the middle of a global pandemic, riots and marches for social justice, and an economic recession.
Fourth, the strategy offers no viable alternative to Chinese expansion. We agree that China is winning the global standards race in areas like 5G and economic access (e.g., the Belt and Road Initiative), but it is largely because of political dysfunction in Washington. American leaders have yet to articulate a compelling alternative and the type of multilateral and public-private partnerships required to build open, free, and secure networks for the 21st century. The Obama administration had a vision along these lines, but struggled to implement it while addressing a recession and managing conflicts in the Middle East. The Trump administration lacks an inclusive vision. Allies and partners are told to “ditch China,” putting them in a difficult position and risking American credibility. It takes more than issuing executive orders on maintaining leadership in artificial intelligence or telling allies to drop Huawei to set global technology standards. Our allies and partners have repeatedly made it clear that they do not want to choose between China and the United States. And, if the United States is going to ask countries to choose, as was the case with Huawei 5G, Washington ought to offer a competitive alternative. As Zach Cooper and Mira Rapp-Hooper note, the Trump administration must stop propagating “a Manichean strategy” that forces states to “choose between the United States and China.”
Fifth, and perhaps the most significant shortcoming of the Trump administration’s China strategy, is that it is blind to the domestic context and misjudges the national mood. The strategy was drafted in 2019 when the U.S. economy was riding high. Since then, the United States has been struck with the triple whammy of a global pandemic, the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, and waves of unrest sweeping cities across the nation. As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, in less than three months, more than 100,000 Americans have died, and over 40 million Americans have lost their jobs. To deal with the crisis, Congress authorized unprecedented levels of deficit spending.
Furthermore, in response to the protests following the death of George Floyd, the Pentagon prepared to deploy troops against American citizens. There would have been nothing Beijing would have liked more than to see the United States use active-duty forces to quell civil unrest, giving it a pretext for turning Hong Kong into Tiananmen Square. It should also be pointed out that most of us in the U.S. defense establishment haven’t been affected by recent developments to the same degree as have our fellow Americans. We live in relatively safe neighborhoods and continue to receive paychecks. Asking the American people to support and fund a more aggressive China policy under current conditions is tone-deaf. The situation in May 2020 is nothing like the situation in late 2019. Washington would be wise reassess its China strategy in light of new domestic realities.
Towards a New Strategy
As national security professionals, we need to do a better job of thinking things through. Threat inflation and groupthink don’t make for good strategy. It is time to press pause and revisit our strategic logic with respect to China. First, Washington will fail if it hangs its strategy on forcing Beijing to back down across a full range of policies without offering positive inducements to do so or taking a collective balancing approach involving multiple stakeholders. Pressure absent bargaining risks triggering fear, honor, and interest. The Chinese Communist Party’s top priority is maintaining its hold on power, and appearing weak is not something Chinese leaders will do. Even if President Xi Jinping wanted to pull back in a crisis, how could he sell that to his people? At present, Washington’s strategy does not leave Beijing a way out that doesn’t concede weakness. It also presents China as 10 feet tall, everywhere at once, and able to project power that never ends. American thinking fails to take into account that the Chinese economy has weakened this year, and unemployment appears to be a serious challenge. Washington needs to develop a theory of competition that factors current Chinese political and economic realities.
Interestingly, Beijing increased its defense budget in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and made significant cuts to social services. On the other hand, Washington continued to rely on deficit spending and borrowing to maintain high levels of spending in all areas. American political leaders keep deferring hard choices. Recent statements by U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper indicate that the United States remains committed to the 2018 National Defense Strategy. This position is unrealistic in light of current fiscal realities. American leaders should seek an economically sustainable strategy. The United States needs to focus on outthinking China and stop relying on outspending China to maintain peace and security.
The United States also continues to be overly enamored with the military instrument, even as China uses integrated economic, legal, and diplomatic tools to further its interests. It is time we recognize that the things we are buying, such as new $13 billion-dollar carriers that are still not operational and big-deck amphibious ships that lack vertical launch systems, are not optimal for the contest at hand. For too long, vested interests have used the China threat to justify their pet programs, many of which date back 30 or 40 years, long before China was considered a peer competitor. Many of these initiatives — from hypersonics to long-range missiles — risk inadvertent escalation and leave little room for crisis management. Worse still, these expensive, often compartmentalized “no foreign” programs do not integrate allies and partners into a comprehensive military strategy. The theory of competition appears to be “show China all the cool ways America can destroy its military.”
There are alternative ways to manage military competition with China that can avoid this trap. The United States should initiate a new round of arms control negotiations. This will be a long process, but through regimes and treaties, U.S. diplomats can increase transparency and limit the risk of inadvertent escalation. That will mean sacrificing tactical and operational advantages — often the curse of shortsighted war plans — for strategic gain. Arms control can be a means of stabilizing a dangerous rivalry and gaining long-term advantage.
Future military investments should focus on strategic access and interoperability. The proposed Pacific Deterrence Initiative and its call for extending runways, building forward-supply areas, and creating the ability to flow forces into theater is a step in the right direction. Focusing on posture, access, and interoperability should take precedence over multibillion-dollar pet projects across the services. Perseverance and quantity matter more than small numbers of sophisticated weapon systems in long-term competition.
The military also needs new ideas about how to manage great-power competition. The services are not keeping up with innovative thinking from the Joint Staff on the competition continuum. The Army’s vision for multi-domain operations reads like Airland Battle 2000. Recent work from Marine Corps officers propose some interesting, new ideas but they need to be validated against a wider range of contingencies.
Further, U.S. strategy ought to be economically sound and sustainable. America’s national debt currently stands at $25 trillion. In 2019, the Government Accountability Office described America’s fiscal path as “unsustainable.” Coronavirus stimulus spending has raised the debt to levels not seen since World War II. The fact that China, the target of Washington’s strategy, is the second largest holder of U.S. Treasury securities should give America’s leaders pause. As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates observed in 2011, fiscal insolvency leads to strategic insolvency. If the Chinese Communist Party knows the United States cannot fund its security obligations over the long term, it will not be deterred. American military power will prove less credible if it is not economically sustainable.
In the final analysis, strengthening the rules-based international order is the key to moderating Chinese behavior. Military power should play a supporting role at best. The global upheaval associated with the coronavirus pandemic provides the United States with an opportunity. Effective immediately, U.S. objectives should be to first reaffirm U.S. global leadership by heading a multinational effort to combat the pandemic. Second, America should use the pandemic response effort as a key step towards reinvigorating its commitment to a rules-based international order and multinational institutions. Third, the U.S. should shift resources from the military to diplomacy and issues like climate change, social justice, income inequality, and migration. American strength starts at home. Ultimately, Washington should view the coronavirus pandemic and how it exacerbates larger structural issues as a window of opportunity to work with allies and partners and reaffirm a multilateral, rules-based order.
Nathan Packard, Ph.D. is an assistant professor at the Marine Corps University, Command and Staff College, and an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. He spent the last year at the National War College. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect official policy.
Benjamin Jensen, Ph.D. holds a dual position as a professor at the Marine Corps University, School of Advanced Warfighting, and as a scholar-in-residence at American University, School of International Service. He is also a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and an officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect official policy.