In a sharp break from the Obama administration, President Donald Trump’s first official national security strategy clearly labels China a “revisionist power” and describes it, along with Russia, North Korea, Iran, and transnational terror groups, as one of the greatest threats to American interests (PDF).
Those countries and groups are “are actively competing against the United States and our allies and partners,” the 68-page strategy document asserts.
Beijing and Moscow, in particular, “want to shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests,” the strategy claims. “China and Russia 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.”
The rhetoric is stark. What’s less certain is if the administration intends to follow through on it.
Obama’s last strategy, from 2015, adopted a more conciliatory—one might say “diplomatic”—tone toward Beijing. “The United States welcomes the rise of a stable, peaceful and prosperous China,” the Obama strategy stated.
The 2015 document highlighted China and America’s cooperation on clean energy before pivoting to the many potential conflicts between the two powers. “We will closely monitor China’s military modernization and expanding presence in Asia, while seeking ways to reduce the risk of misunderstanding or miscalculation.”
By contrast, Trump’s strategy dismisses the diplomatic language of its predecessor. “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 2017 strategy reads. “Contrary to our hopes, China expanded its power at the expense of the sovereignty of others.”
It’s unusual for an administration to use a U.S. national-security strategy to attack a previous administration’s own strategy. “In fact they usually stressed continuity,” Daniel Drezner, a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, commented on Twitter.
To be fair, China and the United States have changed since 2017. Beijing’s military buildup in the China Seas has accelerated since 2015. China is constructing heavily fortified artificial islands in mineral-rich disputed waters while working hard to build the world’s second-most powerful air and naval forces, after those of the United States.
In 2015 China had one aircraft carrier suitable mostly for training and just a handful of experimental, radar-evading warplanes. In 2017, two more carriers are under construction and at least one squadron of J-20 stealth fighters has officially entered service.
But Trump’s strategy confronts an increasingly powerful China with disregard for China’s own interests and the potential for constructive diplomacy. The document claims that the Pentagon’s expanding missile-defense program “is not intended to undermine strategic stability or disrupt longstanding strategic relationships with Russia or China,” essentially dismissing longstanding concerns in both countries that a missile shield could undermine mutual deterrence and make a high-stakes nuclear arms-race more likely.
Still, some foreign-policy experts have welcomed Trump’s tougher stance on China. Andrew Erickson, a China expert at the U.S. Naval War College, called the strategy’s depiction of U.S.-Chinese competition “an accurate vision.”
Erickson praised the new strategy’s emphasis on strategic conflict that falls just short of a full-scale shooting war. “China, Russia and other state and nonstate actors recognize that the U.S. often views the world in binary terms, with states being either ‘at peace’ or ‘at war,’ when it is actually an arena of continuous competition,” the administration explains.
Some experts refer to those conflicts-short-of-war as military and diplomatic “gray zones.” Beijing, like Moscow, is perfectly comfortable in that nebulous strategic space.
In recent years, China has deployed a maritime militia force that sails in government-owned fishing boats under direct military command. These “little blue men,” as Erickson has dubbed them (in a reference to Russia’s incognito “little green men” special forces) routinely harass American warships and occupy disputed Pacific waters.
Either through ignorance or an overabundance of caution, the Obama administration failed to mention the little blue men in its two strategy documents—in 2010 and 2015—as well as in all of its annual reports on the Chinese military. Trump’s first report on the Chinese military, published in May, was the first major U.S. government study to discuss the maritime militia. The current strategy is the second to do so.
The “administration’s new national security strategy nails China’s maritime gray-zone hazard,” Erickson tweeted.
Of course, a strategy is only as good as the paper it’s written on if the administration doesn’t actually act on it. Obama, for one, made good on his 2015 strategy’s emphasis on green energy by working hard to draw China into the Paris climate accord.
It’s unclear that Trump will follow through on his own strategy’s call for a smarter military and stronger alliances to confront a rising China. The strategy also describes Russia as “using information tools in an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of democracies”—a threat Trump himself has steadfastly refused to acknowledge amid deepening concerns over his ties to Moscow.
The gap between the Trump administration’s rhetoric toward Russia and the president’s own words and actions perhaps bodes poorly for the new strategy’s chances of translating into coherent government initiatives. “The cognitive dissonance between the [national security strategy] and Trump’s actual foreign policy is the problem,” Drezner tweeted.