US security strategy: Getting tougher on China

December 28, 2017 08:01
US President Donald Trump said China and Russia “challenge American power, influence and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity". Photo: Reuters

It is no secret that China and the United States compete around the world, although in certain areas they cooperate. The newly released National Security Strategy of the United States, unveiling the Trump administration’s thoughts on national security, focuses primarily on China as its top competitor.

Although North Korea has grabbed headlines in recent months for its attempt to become a nuclear power with ballistic missiles that can deliver death-dealing warheads to North America, the national security document puts the threat from Pyongyang at a lower level than that posed by Beijing and Moscow.

According to the Trump administration, China and Russia “challenge American power, influence and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity”.

Those two countries “are determined to make economies less free and less fair, to grow their militaries, and to control information and data to repress their societies and expand their influence”.

China and Russia are paired in the document, with China always being named first. It is as though the two formed a partnership, with China being the senior partner.

Then, of course, there is the North Korean threat. The national security document sees North Korea and Iran as regional actors, “determined to destabilize regions, threaten Americans and our allies, and brutalize their own people”.

After these state actors are named, “jihadist terrorists” and “transnational criminal organizations” are cited as “actively trying to harm Americans”.

But America, the national security strategy says, “will respond to the growing political, economic and military competitions we face around the world”.

While China and the US cooperate on certain issues, with North Korea currently being a prime example, albeit within limits, this document very much puts the spotlight on competition.

“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,” it says. “China’s infrastructure investments and trade strategies reinforce its geopolitical aspirations.”

In the section on intellectual property, the Trump administration pledges to reduce the “illicit appropriation of US public and private sector technology and technical knowledge by hostile foreign competitors”.

The administration says that it would work with Congress to strengthen the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), whose role is to ensure that foreign acquisitions do not endanger US national security.

Congress is considering legislation to expand the scope of CFIUS and to enhance its power to address national security risks.

The Trump national security strategy echoes that of President George W. Bush in 2002, which said of the American military: “Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States.”

The Trump document says: “The United States will seek areas of cooperation with competitors from a position of strength, foremost by ensuring our military power is second to none.”

Chinese activities around the world are noted. Regarding China’s man-made islands in the South China Sea, the document says that the country’s efforts “to build and militarize outposts” endanger the free flow of trade, threaten the sovereignty of other nations, and undermine regional stability.

“States throughout the region are calling for sustained US leadership in a collective response that upholds a regional order respectful of sovereignty and independence,” it says.

From China’s standpoint, the US, in refusing to recognize Beijing’s South China Sea claims and activities, is threatening what China calls its “core interest”.

Aside from its immediate neighborhood, China is also expanding its influence around the world. In Africa, for example, China’s trade with the continent has grown phenomenally, from less than a third of US trade in 2000 to today, when it is the continent’s largest trading partner.

As for Latin America, the national security document says that China is seeking “to pull the region into its orbit through state-led investments and loans”.

In Europe, too, “China is gaining a strategic foothold by expanding its unfair trade practices and investing in key industries, sensitive technologies and infrastructure”.

While the Trump visit to China was viewed by many as a great success, with the president saying he didn’t blame China for taking advantage of the US over many administrations, the thrust of his statement was that such behavior would not be tolerated in his presidency. That is, he planned to be tough with China.

The national security document confirms that toughness. The North Korea issue means that Beijing can buy some time by cooperating with Washington, but Trump’s overall China policy is set.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.