Five Critiques of the Trump Administration’s China Strategy
In May, the Trump administration issued a new report detailing its “Strategic Approach to The People’s Republic of China.” The strategy is the administration’s clearest policy statement to date on one of its top foreign policy priorities. Moreover, the strategy was released at a critical time, coming amidst Beijing’s crackdown in Hong Kong, human rights abuses in Xinjiang, recurring trade tensions, and criticisms surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.
Did the strategy hit the mark? Conversations with experts in the United States and abroad reveal five principal critiques of the strategy. Some critics say the administration’s approach is too confrontational, while others worry about letting the Chinese Communist Party off the hook. Experts in allied countries argue that the approach is too transactional, but many still fear that it is too values-based for President Donald Trump’s liking. Perhaps the only thing on which everyone agrees is that the strategy was released too late. This short essay consolidates and sharpens these critiques with the aim of jumpstarting a needed debate about the White House’s new China strategy.
Too Confrontational for Administration Critics
Many China scholars and foreign policy experts have argued that the current administration’s approach is overly confrontational and fundamentally counterproductive. In recent months, Richard Haass has accused the administration of a “major strategic error” that “reflects an out-of-date mind-set.” Rachel Esplin Odell and Stephen Wertheim have cautioned against “choosing to make the threats worse and create new perils.” Robert Zoellick has criticized the “new Cold Warriors” and warned that their “self-deception will lead to dangerous diplomacy.”
The administration’s new China strategy will do little to moderate these concerns. In fact, the strategy is largely designed as a rebuttal to Zoellick’s “responsible stakeholder” theory. The Trump administration’s strategy begins with a broadside against efforts “premised on a hope that deepening engagement would spur fundamental economic and political opening in the PRC [People’s Republic of China] and lead to its emergence as a constructive and responsible global stakeholder.” The strategy also echoes the National Security Strategy’s call to “rethink the failed policies of the past two decades — policies based on the assumption that engagement with rivals and their inclusion in international institutions and global commerce would turn them into benign actors and trustworthy partners.”
The Trump administration argues that reforms in China have “slowed, stalled, or reversed” despite U.S. engagement. As a result, the strategy concludes that efforts to integrate China into the international order have failed. It proposes to replace them with a set of sticks (punishments) rather than carrots (inducements) intended to shape China’s choices. The goals are twofold: “to improve the resiliency of our institutions, alliances, and partnerships” and “to compel Beijing to cease or reduce actions harmful” to American, ally, and partner interests.
Although some observers will be reassured that the strategy did not call for the downfall of the Chinese Communist Party, this more confrontational approach will win few adherents among those hoping for a more cooperative U.S.-China relationship. Michael Swaine, for example, criticizes “the Trump administration’s still largely antagonistic approach,” which he believes “seems more designed to mollify critics than give credible signals of policy change.” In short, the administration’s critics remain skeptical that its more confrontational approach toward China will shift China’s policies in the desired direction.
Too Restrained for Communist Party Critics
If the administration’s critics are unhappy, then one might assume that the strategy pleased Trump’s most ardent supporters and the Communist Party’s leading detractors. This hawkish group includes the Committee on the Present Danger: China, which has argued “there is no hope of coexistence with China as long as the Communist Party governs the country.” Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon has gone further, calling on the Communist Party to, “Dissolve yourself. Declare immediately that you’re going to go to democratic institutions and a democratic form of government.” These Communist Party critics reject Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s message to Mao Zedong that “what is important is not a nation’s internal philosophy” but “its policy towards the rest of the world and toward us.”
Yet these observers are also likely to be disappointed by the administration’s new strategy. Take, for example, these lines from the document: “Our approach is not premised on determining a particular end state for China… United States policies are not premised on an attempt to change the PRC’s domestic governance model… We do not seek to contain China’s development, nor do we wish to disengage from the Chinese people.” This is not the rousing call for democracy hoped for by some of the Party’s most ardent critics. In fact, the strategy explicitly rejects calls to bring democracy to China, noting that “the United States has no desire to interfere in the PRC’s internal affairs.”
This new approach is less ambitious than Zoellick’s own responsible stakeholder speech, in which he said: “Closed politics cannot be a permanent feature of Chinese society. It is simply not sustainable… China needs a peaceful political transition to make its government responsible and accountable to its people… We can cooperate with the emerging China of today, even as we work for the democratic China of tomorrow.” As Orville Schell writes, this was not just a throwaway line from the Bush administration. Bill Clinton warned in 1997 that China was “on the wrong side of history” and predicted China “one day too will go the way of communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The United States must do what it can to encourage that process.” Even Barack Obama asserted in a 2015 joint press conference with Xi Jinping, “Democracy and human rights are the common pursuit of mankind.”
The administration’s public abandonment of efforts to spur democracy in China are hard to reconcile with senior officials’ own broadsides against the regime. The same day that the White House released its strategy, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, “China’s been ruled by a brutal, authoritarian regime, a communist regime since 1949… Beijing is ideologically and politically hostile to free nations.” Weeks earlier, in a major speech delivered in Chinese, Deputy National Security Adviser Matt Pottinger asked whether “democratic aspirations” in China would “remain unfulfilled for another century.” Assistant Secretary of State David Stilwell also noted that Beijing has “an authoritarian system… we still believe democratic processes are really the only way to go.” These comments call into question whether the administration’s new China strategy is too restrained not only for the Communist Party’s most ardent critics outside government, but even for some of the leading experts on China within the administration.
Too Transactional for U.S. Allies
The Trump administration’s new strategy rejects both engagement and containment of China. Instead, it proposes a more competitive approach using sticks to shape Chinese behavior. The strategy seeks to be blunt enough for an increasingly concerned U.S. domestic audience without adopting too confrontational a tone for worried U.S. allies and partners. This two-level game is a challenging one, particularly for an administration that is “badly fractured intellectually” in its approach to China, according to former National Security Adviser John Bolton.
Many of America’s friends are frustrated that Trump has not united U.S. allies and partners in pursuit of a common goal. Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, for example, questions whether the United States “will continue to shoulder the burden of maintaining international peace and stability, or whether it might instead pursue a narrower, ‘America First’ approach.” In response, the administration’s strategy promises a commitment to a “free, open, and rules-based international order.” It also makes clear that “United States-China relations do not determine our Indo-Pacific strategy, but rather fall within that strategy.”
Yet, Trump’s transactional, America First approach remains difficult to reconcile with these statements. America’s friends will be happy to see the comment that “stronger alliances and partnerships are a cornerstone” of U.S. strategy, but they will be concerned when U.S. officials warn that Americans “are getting a little tired of paying too much for the defense of other countries” or insist, “Donald Trump was very clear, we want to bring troops from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, from South Korea, Japan, from Germany.” Speaking specifically about the U.S. presence in Asia, Trump told his advisers, “We lose $38 billion in trade in Korea. Let’s get out.” This hardly matches the administration’s stated commitment to “redouble our commitment to established alliances.” These two logics cannot coexist and few observers will be convinced that this strategy supersedes the president’s views.
Asian leaders are fond of saying, “Asian countries do not want to be forced to choose” between the United States and China. But in this case, the Trump administration appears unable to choose between the transactional America First rhetoric it uses at home and the “shared interests and values” it touts abroad. That the administration’s new China strategy simply ignores the America First logic — never even using the term — does not resolve this contradiction.
Too Values-Based for Trump
Another critique of the Trump administration’s China strategy is that it is misaligned with the president’s own views. Speaking about a previous strategy, Tom Wright suggested, “The National Security Strategy is a stunning repudiation of Trump, and Trump’s speech [announcing it] was a stunning repudiation of the National Security Strategy.” Might the same be true of this China strategy?
Take Xinjiang for example. The strategy condemns “repressive policies in Xinjiang that threaten international peace and security.” Yet, Bolton states that in both 2017 and 2019, Trump told Xi Jinping that he “should go ahead with building the camps, which Trump thought was exactly the right thing to do.” Or consider democracy and term limits. The strategy comments that China’s “political reforms have likewise atrophied… General Secretary Xi’s decision to remove presidential term limits, effectively extending his tenure indefinitely, epitomized these trends.” Yet, when Trump and Xi met in 2018, Trump reportedly commented “that people were saying that the two-term constitutional limit on [American] presidents should be repealed for him.” In response, “Xi said the U.S. had too many elections.” So although the administration’s new strategy assails China’s “challenges to our values,” the president remains unwilling to advocate for those values himself.
The same tensions exist on the economic side. The strategy insists, for example, that China “has fallen short of its commitments in many areas… Agreements with Beijing must include stringent verification and enforcement mechanisms.” But does this apply to the Phase 1 trade deal, which has particularly problematic enforcement mechanisms? U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer insists that China “fundamentally change its model of state-run capitalism.” Yet, accounts suggest that structural changes in the Chinese economy took a backseat to Trump’s efforts to win the 2020 election. Trump reportedly asked Xi “to help with the crucial farm-state vote… He stressed the importance of farmers and increased Chinese purchases of soybeans and wheat in the electoral outcome.”
The president and his administration simply do not appear to agree on China strategy. This should come as no surprise. After a 2019 meeting with Xi, Trump stated that China was a “strategic partner,” explicitly rejecting the National Security Strategy’s labeling of China as a “strategic competitor.” The administration’s new values-based China strategy is therefore misaligned with the president’s more transactional approach.
Too Late to Matter
A final critique of the administration’s new China strategy is that it simply comes too late in the administration’s tenure to make a difference. The White House developed this strategy in response to a National Defense Authorization Act requirement that the administration submit an unclassified China strategy to Congress by March 1, 2019. Even that would have been over halfway through the administration. But this strategy, issued six months before the end of a presidential term, after a trade war, and amidst worsening diplomatic tensions, has largely been overtaken by events.
In 2016, I co-authored a report for Congress that suggested a new approach to China should be “among the first documents released by an incoming administration in 2017.” The administration’s leading China experts did develop a strategy even before the administration took office and distributed it to some experts (myself included). Yet, for some reason it took over three years before a document of this sort won interagency agreement to be publicly released.
An earlier release of this strategy would have helped to define and articulate the administration’s approach, particularly for U.S. allies and partners. Polling shows that most Asian allies and partners do not understand the administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy. Only 28 percent of experts in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations say the Indo-Pacific concept “presents a viable option for a new regional order.” The same survey found that only 30 percent were confident the United States would “do the right thing to contribute to global peace, security, prosperity, and governance.” Defining the administration’s approach earlier might have allowed it to explain the logic of its actions.
Much of the administration’s regional strategy now seems like rationalization after the fact. Bolton laments, “We had a good slogan, calling for a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ region. But a bumper sticker is not a strategy.” Even worse, some leading administration officials no longer appear convinced that it is possible to “compel Beijing to cease or reduce actions harmful to the United States.” For example, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien recently noted, “China is not going to change its behavior.” Agreement on and dissemination of this strategy should have been among the administration’s first actions, not among its last.
‘A Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery Inside an Enigma’
The authors of the Trump administration’s new China strategy faced an impossible task. They had to build a coherent and consistent approach to China out of an incoherent and inconsistent set of administration positions and actions. It is sometimes said that getting attacked from all sides is a sign of success. In this case, however, the strategy will leave few convinced. China and its supporters will find this approach too confrontational. The Communist Party’s most ardent opponents will find it too accepting of continued communist rule. U.S. allies and partners will still see the administration’s approach as too transactional. And the strategy directly contradicts the message that Trump has conveyed to Chinese leaders. Finally, most observers believe that the strategy has already been overcome by events. Winston Churchill famously said Russia was “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” The same might be said of the Trump administration’s new China strategy.
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.