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Foreign Policy

Primacy and Balance: Trump’s China Strategy

Mar 16 , 2018



In September 2016, Zack Cooper and Jake Douglas from U.S. think-tank CSIS categorized four U.S. perspectives in dealing with China, based on an assessment of Chinese intentions and power trajectory. They presented them at a conference on the “South China Sea (SCS) in the Broader Maritime Security of the Indo-Pacific,” held in Canberra. I had the great privilege of taking part in the conference, presenting a co-authored paper on the Philippine perspective on the SCS disputes. Though it had been in circulation much earlier, the then less-used geographic term “Indo-Pacific” later received greater currency more than a year afterwards, as President Trump laid out his vision for a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”


Cooper and Douglas came up with four visions of U.S. strategy towards China: primacy, balance, concert and integration. Primacy is optimistic of China’s power trajectory, but pessimistic of its intentions. In this vision, China’s rise threatens the U.S. and unipolarity, and Beijing will eventually push the U.S. out of the region and set up an illiberal regional order. To prevent this, containment through hard power is necessary. The second vision, balance, is pessimistic of both China’s power trajectory and intentions. China cannot rise peacefully, but the costs outweigh the benefits of maintaining U.S. primacy. That said, China can still be checked by working with allies and partners. Concert is a school of thought that is optimistic towards China’s intentions, but pessimistic regarding its power trajectory. In this view, the U.S. and China do not compete over existential issues and conflict during power transitions (the “Thucydides trap”) can be avoided. The U.S. can accommodate China and their cooperation can help address global issues. The final version of U.S. strategy, integration, is optimistic of both Chinese intentions and of its power trajectory. The U.S. can lead the integration of China into the existing global order and encourage China to become a responsible stakeholder and grow within the system. As the Trump administration enters the early part of its second year in office, debates over the proper strategy when dealing with China remain as lively as ever.


President Trump’s persona, rhetoric and actions suggest that he will lean more towards primacy with an element of balance in dealing with China. He has proposed a big budget for the military and surrounded himself with generals, raising concerns about increased military influence in civilian affairs, including foreign policy, and the politicization of the military. He nominated former Pacific Command chief Admiral Harry Harris, a vocal critic of Beijing’s “Great Wall of Sand” in the SCS— who is considered a hawk by many in China— as ambassador to Australia, a key quadrilateral partner. Trump also increased the frequency of freedom of navigation operations in the SCS, though it remains to be seen whether this forms part of a larger strategy to push back on China’s excessive maritime claims and militarization of the contested sea. The USS Carl Vinson visited treaty ally the Philippines and sailed through the SCS towards Vietnam, a visit aimed at shoring up security alliances and partnerships. But while the presence of professional men in uniform may instill discipline in the otherwise tumultuous White House, too much reliance on people from a certain background for advice may constrain the diversity of opinions critical in charting foreign policy.


While the display of hard power is strongly evident, diplomacy remains hamstringed with numerous vacancies in crucial posts in the State Department, including ambassador to U.S. treaty ally South Korea. On the economic front, early threats such as labelling China a currency manipulator, a fixation with addressing the bilateral trade deficit and calling out China for unfair trade practices also suggest a hawkish position. The 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) spoke of no longer tolerating economic aggression, “defending against threats from state-led economies” and working with partners to restrict China’s acquisition of sensitive technologies. The document also affirmed the administration’s interest in retaining the U.S.’ position as “the world’s pre-eminent economic actor.” The recent decision to impose steep tariffs on steel and aluminum may also trigger a retaliation from China, the world’s largest producer of these two important metals, as well as from partners and allies like Canada, Mexico and South Korea where the U.S. also sources these metals from. Trump’s tweet that trade wars are easy to win may only serve to exacerbate tensions.


The balance component of current U.S. strategy is beset with problems, largely arising from the imbalance in favor of security to the detriment of other equally important domains. While China’s expansive claims and assertive actions in its near seas raise tensions with its littoral neighbors, China has also emerged as the largest trade partner and key investor for many regional states. Deepening economic interdependence only makes relations more complex. The previous Obama Administration realized that if the U.S. will not write the rules of regional trade, China will, and sought to remedy it. Hence, it set about establishing the economic pillar of its rebalance policy, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), from which Trump withdrew U.S. leadership and participation from on his first day in office. Without an effective counterweight to Chinese-backed economic initiatives like the Belt and Road Initiative, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, it will be difficult for the U.S. to marshal a coalition of allies to check the disruptive tendencies of China’s rise.


Primacy and balance constitute viable strategies in dealing with an emerging rival, but over reliance on these two unnecessarily limits U.S. foreign policy maneuverability and poses serious danger. Too much emphasis on the competitive dimensions of the relationship at the expense of opportunities for cooperation will canalize responses with far reaching consequences. Primacy’s predisposition to view developments along black-and-white, zero-sum lines may only set the stage for a self-fulfilling prophecy of a major power collision course. The NSS made a clear reference to this, saying that “[a] geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order is taking place in the Indo-Pacific region” and that “[c]hanges in a regional balance of power can have global consequences and threaten U.S. interests.” It is a strong statement, but does not capture the totality of the relations and ignores common ground, such as counter-terrorism, climate change, and development assistance, where boosting cooperation can provide benefits not only to both powers but also to the rest of the world.


Furthermore, China’s reaction to challenges and opportunities presented by its interaction – competition or cooperation - with the U.S. is a key variable that drives Chinese intentions and power trajectory. One can argue that alternative regional security arrangements backed by China, like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building in Asia and proposal for a New Asian Security Concept, are as much a reaction to the U.S. hub-and-spoke alliances as much as it excludes or pushes the U.S. out of the region. In addition, primacists may not appreciate that the erosion of U.S. primacy is a result of U.S. foreign policy as much as it is of China’s rise. For instance, withdrawal from the TPP, a failure to meet regional infrastructure demands, threatening to upend bilateral trade deals, asking allies to spend more for defense, and too much focus on security have all contributed to diminishing the appeal of U.S. leadership in the region. It would also be an oversimplification to say that shared political values and longstanding alliances would facilitate easier consensus with like-minded Indo-Pacific partners on how best to deal with Beijing.

In sum, oscillating within the range of the four strategies, instead of over reliance on just two, is in America’s best interest. It will allow for flexibility and expand the range of options and tools not only to respond, but more importantly, to shape and influence U.S.-China relations.

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