The Trump administration is slowly but surely coming around to a more hawkish, traditional Republican stance on China. Several signs of the shift will be evident, if not obvious, during the president's trip to Asia. But the real movement will play out in the weeks after President Trump returns home.
After months of what officials and Asia experts saw as a somewhat disjointed and contradictory approach to Asia's rising power, officials say the administration is coalescing around a strategy that will attempt to define the Indo-Pacific chessboard on America's terms and respond to the threat that China's activities pose to the United States and its regional allies.
The shift is the result of the increasing influence of China hawks inside the administration, officials and experts close to the Trump team say. "While everyone's been paying attention to the distractions, the traditional Republican Asia hawks are moving China policy in a direction that would be recognizable in most Republican administrations," a White House official said.
Parts of the new strategy have been incorporated into the speeches Trump will give in the five Asian countries he is visiting. The broad vision will be unveiled in the president's speech at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in Da Nang, Vietnam.
"We're saying our interests are the same and immutable all the way from Japan to the Indian Ocean and being much more explicit about the challenge that China poses," the White House official said.
Trump doesn't want any friction with Chinese President Xi Jinping during his Beijing stop, officials said, so don't expect him to challenge Xi directly on human rights or North Korea. But in speeches in other countries, Trump will call out China's aggression in the South China Sea, its predatory trade practices, and America's commitment to an open and free, rules-based order in the region, officials said.
The United States will also participate in a quadrilateral meeting of Pacific allies Japan, India and Australia, the first of its kind in several years. The formulation, long envisioned by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is referred to informally as the "democracy diamond." Although midlevel officials will staff the meeting, the Chinese government will not miss its significance.
The subtle but steady shift in the Trump administration's China approach is partially credited to the fact that Trump is filling his Asia policy team with China hawks inside the national security agencies and around the region. Bush administration official Randall Schriver is being nominated for the Pentagon's top Asia job. Adm. Harry Harris has been offered the post of ambassador to Australia. Former White House official Victor Cha is set to be ambassador to South Korea. And National Security Council senior director for Asia Matthew Pottinger, who advocates a harder line on Beijing, is leading the Indo-Pacific strategy review.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has also been taking a harder line on China recently. His speech last month at the Center for Strategic and International Studies reflected a much tougher stance compared with his line during his first trip to Beijing earlier this year.
"Don't be fooled by the happy veneer in Beijing — a harder line toward China is coalescing and ascendant inside the administration," said Ely Ratner, senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. "The administration has finally gotten around to designing a more holistic approach to Asia. By all accounts, that will include a harder line toward Beijing."
Of course, Trump's own praise of Xi, including calling him a "king," sends the opposite message. Several officials were shocked last week when White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly told Fox News it was not for the United States to "pass judgment" on the Chinese government and added, "They have a system of government that has apparently worked for the Chinese people."
Trump's desire to keep his friendship with Xi strong does complicate the drive to get tough on China. But after spending almost two weeks hearing from other Asian leaders, Trump may see the China challenge more clearly, some officials believe.
The test will be in the weeks following Trump's trip. Several key decisions on China come due, including on steel and aluminum tariffs, Chinese theft of intellectual property, and more. There's a consensus inside the administration that Trump needs to do more to press China on the economic front, a major campaign promise.
Trump's time in Beijing will be a smile-fest, but that will be his least important stop among the five countries he visits. If he can articulate a clear vision for the region and listens to allies, the trip could set the stage for a concrete shift to the more hawkish China policy the majority of his officials believe in.