Trump Ditched America’s China-First Policy Overnight

In one document, the American president signaled a once-in-a-lifetime shift in American statecraft.

U.S. President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping (not shown) make a joint statement at the Great Hall of the People on November 9, 2017 in Beijing, China. Trump is on a 10-day trip to Asia.

Thomas Peter-Pool/Getty

President Donald Trump on Monday ditched more than four decades of Washington’s China-friendly policies by releasing his National Security Strategy (PDF). The 68-page document brands the Chinese state a “revisionist power,” implying—and sometimes stating directly—that it is a threat to American security and a disruptive influence in the world.

Beijing appeared unperturbed. Spokeswoman Hua Chunying rolled out the foreign ministry’s stock phrases for Washington’s criticism. At her regular briefing Tuesday, she said the U.S. should “abandon such outdated concepts as the Cold War mentality and the zero-sum game.” She also predicted the U.S. “will only end up harming itself as well as others.”

Similarly, Communist Party media shrugged off Trump’s statement of policy. “In the final analysis, the newly released National Security Strategy reflects Washington’s reluctance to accept the rise of China,” explained the Global Times, the semi-official Beijing newspaper, in an editorial Tuesday. “But it cannot keep China in check given its large size and colossal economic volume. Washington’s anxiety is deeply rooted in China’s growth and the consequent spillover of influence.”

Beijing should not be so dismissive. The American president, for better or worse, announced an historic shift in the way the U.S. approaches the Chinese state.

In the National Security Strategy, Trump signaled a break from the assumptions of his eight immediate predecessors. “For decades, U.S. policy was rooted in the belief that support for China’s rise and for its integration into the post-war international order would liberalize China,” the document states. Because China had remained a baneful influence, however, his administration would no longer act “on the assumption that engagement with rivals and their inclusion in international institutions and global commerce would turn them into benign actors and trustworthy partners.”

In short, before Trump’s America First policies there were China First ones. Washington had paved the way for China’s rapid ascent with unusually generous approaches, which had the result of allowing theft of intellectual property and wholesale violations of trade commitments. Moreover, Washington, to avoid confrontation with Beijing, failed to confront, among other things, Chinese expansionism and proliferation.

No longer. The National Security Strategy sees a world defined by “continuous competition,” incorporating a bleaker, harsher vision than the one that had anchored American policy since the Second World War.

Chinese leaders, seemingly unconcerned about the new attitude in the American capital, look like they believe Trump, no matter what he does, cannot stop their inevitable climb to the top of the international order.

There is one critical attitude Trump shares with the Gipper: powerful optimism.

People’s Daily, which as the Communist Party’s self-described “mouthpiece” is China’s most authoritative publication, betrayed this sense of invulnerability by running a piece on Tuesday quoting former American officials who doubt Trump’s ability to implement the National Security Strategy.

“If the Trump administration takes up the more confrontational approach, I’m afraid they will make a discovery very soon that they are damaging U.S. interests in the process,” Stapleton Roy, the former U.S. ambassador to China, told the party newspaper. “Other countries should not overreact to this position of the Trump administration because the approach outlined in this national security strategy is not workable.”

Perhaps Roy, known for his connections to Henry Kissinger, is correct about the infeasibility of Trump’s new approach. Yet there was once the lonely figure of Ronald Reagan, who was derided for not buying the Kissingerian notion that the United States had to accept the existence of the mighty-looking Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Trump did not campaign on bringing down the People’s Republic of China and has yet to label it an “evil empire.” That does not mean, however, that the 45th president is any less dangerous to Beijing than the 40th was to Moscow. China now exhibits vulnerabilities, especially an economy headed to a debt crisis. Any sign from Trump that he will disrupt commercial ties with China could trigger a loss of confidence in China. Such a loss would almost certainly start what many see as the long-delayed Chinese economic catastrophe.

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Is Trump a Reagan? No, for many obvious reasons. But the current president is willful. Trump, despite what many label imprudent behavior, has honored campaign promises on trade, like withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He famously ran on other trade pledges, like bringing back factories to America and opposing Beijing’s increasingly mercantilist and predatory practices.

And there is one critical attitude Trump shares with the Gipper: powerful optimism. “For many years, our citizens watched as Washington politicians presided over one disappointment after another,” he said Monday, unveiling the National Security Strategy. “On top of everything else, our leaders drifted from American principles. They lost sight of America’s destiny. And they lost their belief in American greatness.”

Trump is guilty of many sins but not those. As he promised Monday, “America is in the game, and America is going to win.”

Trump issued his National Security Strategy earlier in his term than either of his two immediate predecessors, indicating a stark change in policy was a personal priority of the president. The document is notable in part because it directly incorporates campaign promises.

New York Times columnist Roger Cohen called the National Security Strategy “a farce,” and Chinese voices say Trump will never implement it due to the boldness of the change it contemplates. Nonetheless, the document is also notable for looking at the world as it is and not as foreign policy specialists and diplomats would like it to be. And because the document is grounded in hard reality—“principled realism” is the new motto of American statecraft—Trump and his successors just might implement it.

How would American leaders do so? “Principled realism” will not necessarily preclude Washington and Beijing working together where interests coincide, but relations will, in almost all cases, be hard-edged, more coercive than cooperative. For instance, look for Trump to be more willing to impose costs on China for supporting North Korea, as a means of giving the Chinese incentives to help.

“China doesn’t pay much attention to what Trump says,” Shi Yinhong of Renmin University, the oft-quoted Chinese scholar, told  The Washington Post. “It mainly pays attention to what Trump does.”

So here’s a prediction. While Chinese leaders watch Trump act, their sense of triumphalism will erode as he begins a once-in-a-lifetime shift in American outlook.