On May 26, 2020, the Trump administration presented its complete approach to China in a foreign policy document called the United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China. Although many of its points reiterated the strategy outlined in the 2017 National Security Strategy of the United States of America (NSS), the new document begins by publicly announcing the distinct and diverging interests that will naturally force China and the US into perpetual strategic competition. With the document, the Trump administration presents a clear and expanded China policy for the future that builds upon the foundations of the NSS.
The paper explains the four pillars of the 2017 strategy in detail - to protect the American people, homeland, and way of life; promote American prosperity; preserve peace through strength; and advance American influence. The ambiguous nature of these four points justify conflict with China in any aspect of geopolitics, the global economy, and ideology. In maintaining and expanding the vows of the NSS, the White House hopes to improve America’s resiliency against PRC behavior, while simultaneously expanding its influence in global affairs. The document acknowledges that previous US administrations maintained a false hope that the PRC’s economic development would lead to an inevitable ‘political opening’ in Chinese society. This belief that China would transition into an ‘open society’ has diminished in Washington over the last two decades, and culminated with the Trump administration, which tosses the hope away altogether and maintains that the two systems are in consistent ideological struggle.
The Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China accuses the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) of intentionally constraining the scope of both economic and political reforms to preserve its Marxist interests, and using exploitative economic and military tactics when dealing with other states, firms, and individuals. While the paper states that the US will increase its “tolerance for greater bilateral friction,” it also states that it has no “particular end state for China,” this quote hints that the US does not expect significant domestic reforms. The White House calls this new approach to strategic competition between China and the US “principled realism,” and states that the relationship has always been, and will continue to be, one of “great power competition.” It holds that the US will not attempt to change the PRC’s domestic governance, but will not make concessions to the CCP’s narratives, malign behavior, or false equivalencies between American and Chinese values.
However, Trump’s message on international affairs is clear. The US will not tolerate significant Chinese influence in global organizations, as indicated by Trump’s withdrawal from the WHO. The move to withdraw further suggests that the US President believes China infiltrates international institutions with its Marxist ideology, or that Beijing somehow extorts organizations for preferable treatment.
Even more relevant, the foundations expressed in the document further reinforce Washington’s intent to firmly preserve its economic influence in Hong Kong, since 85,000 American citizens live there and 1,300 Americans reside there. The Trump administration fully backs the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration to preserve a high degree of autonomy, rule of love, and democratic freedoms for the global financial and business hub of Hong Kong. At the end of May, Trump announced the revocation of Hong Kong’s favored trade status with US, after China put forth its new controversial security law for Hong Kong. The treaty previously maintained special export controls and extradition agreements. The US also emphasized that it will remain active in the Indo-Pacific region with expansive investment projects to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific. The recent escalation of political tensions in Hong Kong, and Trump’s policy response, also indicate that the White House is willing to increase pressure on China over a wider range of issues. Washington’s criticisms also included Beijing’s handling of domestic challenges, such as the treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, and the “religious persecution of Christians, Tibetan Buddhists, Muslims, and members of Falun Gong.” These accusations, now formally mobilized by the Trump administration, are an attempt to delegitimize the entire system’s morality and elevate western values on an international scale.
In terms of trade, the paper criticizes the PRC for not actually adopting the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) trading and institutional market-oriented approaches. Instead, the White House alleges that Beijing used protectionist policies to hurt US companies and workers, distort global markets, violate international norms, and pollute the environment. Trump also recently pushed for foreign companies listed on US financial exchanges to be subject to US accounting and audit standards in order to reveal undue risks associated with Chinese companies. The paper classifies Chinese trade practices as ‘mercantilist,’ and packed with subsequent political policies that further centralize power. In an effort to protect sensitive technology research, Trump also threatened to impose sanctions on Chinese officials and expel Chinese graduate students who are tied to the CCP, People’s Liberation Army (PLA), or Chinese intelligence services.
The White House also labels the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as a political influence project. The BRI also provides military access and infrastructure that is “characterized by poor quality, corruption, environmental degradation, a lack of public oversight or community involvement, opaque loans, and contracts generating or exacerbating governance and fiscal problems.”
Additionally, the White House presents the BRI as a security risk, as it expands the presence of the PLA as China engages in military activities in the Yellow Sea, the East and South China Seas, the Taiwan Strait, and the Sino-Indian border areas. The perceived threats are identified as disruptive to global commerce and overall supply chains. The expansion of the PLA is a direct threat to US global control of trade routes.
In coordination with the four pillars of the 2017 NSS, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) plan to identify and prosecute trade secret theft, hacking and cyberwar, and economic espionage. The President issued the “Executive Order on Securing the Information and Communications Technology and Services Supply Chain” and the “Executive Order on Establishing the Committee for the Assessment of Foreign Participation in the United States Telecommunications Services Sector” to protect US information networks by preventing companies associated with foreign security services from gaining access to sensitive information. It also outlines a plan to work with allies to deter future malicious cyber activities.
In order to promote American prosperity, the Trump administration intends on reviving the US manufacturing base with a full government rebalancing to promote US competitiveness and exports. The Trump administration views previous efforts to reform China’s trade practices as failures, and is committed to holding Beijing accountable on both Phase One and Phase Two of the US-China trade deal. The paper criticizes Chinese overcapacity and subsidies, emphasizes the importance of protecting US steel and aluminum with tariffs, and encourages the Department of Commerce to target Chinese dumping across various industries. Domestically, the Trump administration hopes to promote economic sectors with artificial intelligence and 5G technology development as evidenced by the President’s recent “Executive Order on Maintaining American Leadership in Artificial Intelligence.”
Trump’s ‘peace through strength’ approach translates into the modernization of the nuclear tirade, while simultaneously urging China toward arms control discussions. Washington also expresses its right to engage in freedom of navigations exercises in the South China Sea, despite China’s maritime and territorial claims.
Despite the more aggressive points of the release, the strategic approach also states that while the US recognizes long term strategic competition with the Chinese system, it will continue constructive and results-oriented engagement and cooperation when interests align. The strategic competition between China and the US occurs during a period of rapid technological innovation while globalization is under political criticism throughout the world. The rivalry is a clash of global systems with differenct approaches to global trade and domestic governance, and the 2020 ‘United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China’ certainly shifts the US approach to China to a more competitive and aggressive posture that will only evolve throughout the 21st century.