The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s National Security Strategy marks a hawkish turn on China

President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Nov. 9. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)
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Although you wouldn’t know it from his speech, President Trump’s first ever National Security Strategy (NSS) places the United States in a new posture vis-à-vis China, a much harder line that reflects the hawkish trend inside his administration.

China is mentioned 23 times in the document, almost twice as many mentions compared with the Obama administration’s last version of the strategy. And while the Obama strategy focused on engagement and cooperation with China, the Trump team concentrated on identifying the mounting threats posed by China and pledged that the United States would push back against them.

The Trump strategy calls out China for a range of malicious practices, warns about China’s international expansion and commits the United States to competing with and even combating China on every conceivable playing field. Officials who worked on the document and experts say that’s no mere coincidence.

“China is seen as a strategic competitor because China competes effectively across the political, economic, military and informational domains in ways probably not duplicated by our other competitors,” a senior administration official said.

The document released Monday didn’t accuse China of “economic aggression,” as had been reported. And the document does not use the term “strategic competitor,” but that theme is woven throughout. Officials briefing the strategy identified China as one of two “revisionist powers” that are challenging U.S. interests — along with Russia, which is mentioned six fewer times in the document.

The Trump administration’s more hawkish China policy has been in the works for months, despite Trump’s personal friendship with Chinese President Xi Jinping and the administration’s determination to work with China in certain areas such as North Korea. The NSS makes that more hawkish stance official and public.

“The key acknowledgement in the strategy is that China views us as their chief geopolitical rival, as they have for 20 years. In the United States, we are just waking up to it now,” said Dan Blumenthal, a former Pentagon China official now with the American Enterprise Institute. “The NSS lays out a road map to get in the game.”

The Obama NSS expressed hope in “the rise of a stable, peaceful, and prosperous China,” but the idea that Beijing, if invited, will become a responsible international stakeholder just hasn’t borne out, Blumenthal said.

Inside the administration, more and more China hawks are taking up key national security positions. The tough-on-China stance unites economic nationalists inside the administration with defense hawks and neoconservatives, who all want to see a more aggressive policy, albeit for different reasons.

“This should not be painted as mere America First-ism,” one administration source said. “This is an overdue response that is basically a consensus view of security people in Washington on both sides.”

Inside the strategy document, the administration lists China’s strategies to expand it influence abroad and affirms that it is the United States’ responsibility not only to compete against those strategies but also to stop China from imposing its will on smaller countries all over the world and interfering in their political systems.

“Although the United States seeks to continue to cooperate with China, China is using economic inducements and penalties, influence operations, and implied military threats to persuade other states to heed its political and security agenda,” the strategy states.

The strategy’s warnings are not limited to Asia. It warns of Chinese influence expansion in Europe, the Western Hemisphere, Africa and South Asia. It also calls out China for stealing hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of American intellectual property and warns of “cyber-enabled economic warfare.”

There’s no real mention of China’s gross and systemic human rights violations, but the strategy does criticize China’s plan to institute a “social score” for all Chinese citizens, which would rate them based on their loyalty to the regime.

The NSS is short on actual policies to address the many aspects of the China challenge it identifies. Some of those policies will be found in future strategy documents, including the National Defense Strategy and the Nuclear Posture Review. Some, like intellectual-property theft and protecting the defense industrial base, are issues the Trump administration is already working hard on.

And there’s nothing in the document that can address the personality of Trump himself, who is known for changing his mind, altering policy via tweet and placing too much emphasis on his personal powers of persuasion. But, at least, the rest of the U.S. government is now working off the same sheet of paper when it comes to China.

The significance of the NSS was not lost on the Chinese government. Its foreign ministry said ahead of the release the two sides should build “strategic mutual trust,” and Chinese state-owned media published an op-ed calling Trump’s economic confrontation of China “a big joke.”

Now that the Trump team has correctly and clearly identified the mounting problems and challenges that China’s behavior presents, it must follow through and address them — or the joke will be on us.