THE National Security Strategy released by President Donald Trump’s administration last year augured a major change in China-US relations. Where its predecessors lauded the merits of co-operation with the emerging superpower, Mr Trump’s document promised competition and resistance to Chinese trade and other abuses. The tirade Mike Pence launched against China last week doubled down on that commitment. In a speech delivered at the Hudson Institute, a short walk from Congress and the ongoing Kavanaugh brouhaha, the vice-president castigated the Chinese for bullying investors, buying allies with cheap loans, “tearing down crosses” and much else. This may turn out to be Mr Trump’s most significant mark on the world. America’s new adversarial posture towards China is overdue, popular and probably irreversible.
That is notwithstanding the fact that the vice-president’s speech was in some ways cynical and reckless. Much of it seemed to have more of an eye on the mid-terms than the world. “To put it bluntly, President Trump’s leadership is working,” he purred. Mr Pence then parroted his boss’s recent, probably bogus, claim that Chinese “covert actors, front groups and propaganda” were spreading more disinformation in America than the Russian spies to whom Mr Trump may owe his job. He gave no sense of which Chinese affronts he considered most grievous. He therefore offered only a glint of a counter-strategy. It was disorientating to witness such tawdry politics at such a potentially momentous moment. Conversely, it was a useful reminder, in Trump-drunk Washington, DC, that some things are bigger than Mr Trump.
Sooner or later, America’s shift on China was inevitable. After every big hot and cold war of the past century, notes Andrew Krepinevich, a security savant, America’s leaders trusted to collective defence. Woodrow Wilson created the League of Nations, Franklin Roosevelt the “Four Policemen”; Clintonians preached “co-operative security”. But, as surely as nations rise and fall, power politics returns, and this has been apparent in the current iteration for over a decade. China, like Russia, is testing an American-led system it feels constrained by. Distracted by jihadists and fearing the costs of a new superpower rivalry, America has merely been unusually reluctant to accept that fact. Under Barack Obama, the usual mini-cycle of creeping presidential disillusionment with China seemed even to be reversed. His administration drifted from scepticism about China to resignation.
That explains much of the pent-up support for Mr Trump’s more confrontational approach. Though the president’s tariffs and bellicose rhetoric are controversial, there is a consensus among the bureaucracy, many businessmen and both parties that it is time to call China out. “China’s goal is world supremacy and there is bipartisan support for pushing back,” says John Barrasso, a Republican member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “There’s a broader, more intense and ideological competition with China than I had appreciated,” says Chris Coons, a Democratic member of the committee. It is hard to imagine Mr Trump’s successors arguing for a return to trustful co-operation. Yet there are huge uncertainties about what comes next.
Xi Jinping, not Mr Trump, is the main catalyst behind their countries’ rivalry. Yet America’s next moves will probably shape the first phase of acknowledged competition between the countries. The American pushback already looks broad. To provide an alternative to Chinese credit, Congress has passed legislation to expand American financing of overseas infrastructure projects. The Justice Department has unveiled charges of economic espionage against a Chinese intelligence officer, Yanjun Xu, who has been extradited from Belgium to stand trial. Relations are about to get even rockier. Yet they are unlikely to recall the cold war.
Neither side wants to end all co-operation and it is unlikely, given their economic inter-dependence, they could. China’s strategy is also unlike the Soviet Union’s. A multi-faceted challenger, not a nuclear-armed bankrupt-in-waiting, it aims to increase its leverage on many fronts while avoiding conflict. “Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting,” wrote Sun Tzu in “The Art of War”. If a stand-off ensued, moreover, the rest of the world would not neatly divide between east and west, an essential feature of the cold war. Its history is mainly relevant because it shows where America’s competitive advantages lie. Worryingly, Mr Trump disdains most of them.
One of America’s advantages is the international system Mr Trump is straining almost as much Mr Xi. It provides avenues to settle, or at least pursue, many of Mr Pence’s gripes. The WTO was founded to deal with trade disputes without causing trade wars, the UN as a forum for great powers and to police human-rights abuses. The Trans-Pacific Partnership was negotiated by Mr Obama with a view to checking China’s influence in Asia. Mr Trump, having little understanding of institutions or esteem for the moral high ground, rejects them all. He also undervalues the alliances that underpin them, which are a second American advantage. “We’re building new and stronger bonds with nations that share our values…from India to Samoa,” said Mr Pence. He should check that with Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, whose frustration with Mr Trump, on trade and otherwise, is said to have led India to seek warmer relations with Mr Xi.
Know yourself, know your enemy
America’s most important advantage is its democratic system. It is the means by which its leaders obtain consent for the financial and other sacrifices that geopolitical struggles entail. Yet, notwithstanding the support for his approach, it is hard to imagine the relentlessly divisive Mr Trump winning bipartisan approval for any difficult policy. This turns a strength into a potentially serious weakness. America will not be able to sustain a costly rivalry with China unless Americans stand united behind it.