When over breakfast this morning I read Josh Rogin’s Washington Post column on the Trump administration’s new China strategy statement, I was pretty pleased. It’s been a long time since I viewed the intra-administration disagreements on the subject that its release has supposedly resolved as major problems in the China strategy overhaul that President Trump has sought, The tough and, more important, smart Phase One trade deal signed in mid-January was a convincing sign that the “doves” had been marginalized, but only one sign. The new statement itself describes many others. At the same time, the more basic agreement within Mr. Trump’s team, the better.
When I finally read the actual statement a little later, I was less pleased. It’s true that the President is both fully woke to the China threat, and that he’s reversed or overturned many of the disastrous mistakes made by his predecessors on a variety of fronts – including not only trade but technology, foreign investment, and exchange programs in particular. Moreover, the evidence is multiplying that the disaster created by the CCP Virus will lead to still tougher and, more important, still smarter measures. (A further crackdown on U.S. stock exchanges listings of Chinese entities is just one example.)
But the statement also made clear that Mr. Trump hasn’t made the clean break with previous globalist approaches to China and related aspects of American foreign policy that I’ve been advocating and that, as I’ve written, could lead to serious and needless dangers down the road. And as with much of the rest of the Trump framework, the big problem has to do with the role assigned to U.S. allies and alliances. Specifically, it’s still way too big, and not different enough from the globalist approach he’s rightly slammed verbally.
Not that “United States Strategic Approach to The People’s Republic of China” was devoid of America First-y ideas. It was great, for example, to see the administration reaffirm “Our approach is not premised on determining a particular end state for China. Rather, our goal is to protect United States vital national interests” (even though the United States keeps demanding, at least rhetorically, major structural reforms in China’s trade, technology, and other economic policies – demands I’ve explained are fruitless because of impossible monitoring and enforcement challenges).
Similarly encouraging, the top two vital interests identified: “(1) protect the American people, homeland, and way of life; (2) promote American prosperity….”
I also really liked “[T]he United States responds to the PRC’s [People’s Republic of China] actions rather than its stated commitments. Moreover, we do not cater to Beijing’s demands to create a proper ‘atmosphere’ or ‘conditions’ for dialogue. Likewise, the United States sees no value in engaging with Beijing for symbolism and pageantry; we instead demand tangible results and constructive outcomes.”
Indeed, the document adds, “We acknowledge and respond in kind to Beijing’s transactional approach with timely incentives and costs, or credible threats thereof.” This kind of transactionalism – expecting proposed foreign policy measures above all to create specific, measurable short-term benefits for the United States, rather than focusing on more ambitious steps that might turn out even better farther down the road, but whose success is far less certain – is a key tenet of America First foreign policies (as I’ve argued in the above linked National Interest article). Therefore, this explicit mention and endorsement of the term is most welcome (though it needs to be enshrined as a pillar of U.S. diplomacy elsewhere, too).
The statement’s treatment of transactionalism is closely related to its clear skepticism about another dubious globalist concept – though in this instance it’s more important for what it doesn’t say than for what it does: “[C]ompetition necessarily includes engagement with the PRC, but our engagements are selective and results-oriented, with each advancing our national interests….” I read this passage as an implicit announcement that the United States will no longer be seeking any particular kind of “relationship” with China, a gauzy goal that I’ve explained (on Twitter) creates powerful pressures to sacrifice concrete objectives in the here and now in the usually mistaken belief that the other party will feel obliged to make comparable sacrifices going forward – at some point.
And all this excellent material helps make clear why I’m so disappointed in the document’s numerous bow to globalism’s shibboleths. Two stand out in particular, and they’re so intimately intertwined as to be practically two sides of the same coin: the idea that it’s crucial for the United States to uphold something globalists (and the authors of this document) call a “rules-based international order,” and the maxim that critical building blocks of this order are America’s security alliances. The big problem from an America First standpoint with these notions? Once you buy into them, you’re back in Relationships-Uber-Alles-Land.
So I was distinctly unhappy to read passages like:
“[T]he United States does not and will not accommodate Beijing’s actions that weaken a free, open, and rules-based international order. We will continue to refute the CCP’s narrative that the United States is in strategic retreat or will shirk our international security commitments. The United States will work with our robust network of allies and likeminded partners to resist attacks on our shared norms and values, within our own governance institutions, around the world, and in international organizations.”
Indeed, the lionization of America’s international security commitments completely ignores problems that President Trump has rightly spotlighted – like flagrant defense free-riding, diplomatic fence-sitting, and trade policies that have ripped off America nearly as much as China’s. Just as thoroughly ignores problems that have largely escaped Mr. Trump’s notice – like the recent, rapidly growing nuclear war risks the United States has been running in places like the Korean peninsula and Eastern Europe precisely because its allies do so little to defend themselves. Does the Trump administration really believe it can count on these countries to help fight China if shooting starts?
Meanwhile, the similar shout-out to international organizations overlooks the administration’s warning in this very same document about the naivete of assuming that “engagement with rivals and their inclusion in international institutions and global commerce would turn them into benign actors and trustworthy partners.”
Another way to put this critique: The document pays no attention to the fundamental problem with rules-based order worship. In the last analysis, it’s never been based on adherence to rules – i.e., a consensus on what is and is not acceptable international behavior. It’s been based on a willingness of the so-called free world to allow the United States to bear most of the costs and risks of providing them with security and prosperity. Those costs and risks, however, have become unaffordable and unacceptable for the United States, and its allies have displayed no serious signs of helping carry the load.
Let’s end on a happier note: The new China document promises that the United States will judge China by its deeds and not by its words. And since despite the references to alliances and international orders, these considerations so far haven’t much inhibited the administration from hitting China ever harder, especially on the trade and technology fronts, focusing on its deeds seems like the best way to evaluate its China policy, too.
In fact, here’s possibly the strongest proof of that pudding. The document doesn’t once mention the aim or even the concept of “decoupling” – the notion that the United States should disengage economically from China as fast and as thoroughly as practicable. But decoupling – indeed, big time decoupling – is exactly what’s been taking place during the age of Trump.