Donald Trump is so active on Twitter that it sometimes seems he is setting American policy on the fly, including the outlines of the crucially important relationship (or non-relationship) with China.
While it is true that his tweets reveal his tactics of the moment, it is also fair to say that grander strategy has been devised offline. His administration made a clear break with its predecessors on China in the winter of 2017, when it overhauled the US National Security Strategy (NSS), followed by a revamp of the national defence strategy the following year. Both were guided by a departure from the notion that engagement with China would see it emerge as a partner in prosperity and stability. Instead Beijing was recognised as a potential adversary, often intent on undermining American interests and values.
There was another reminder of the change of mood on May 20, when the Trump administration delivered a NSS update to Congress on its “whole of government approach towards relations with Beijing”. These reviews don’t provide detailed blueprints of the government’s approach but they are important in underlining the tone and direction. And in this case, it highlighted how the newly “competitive approach” to China relations requires “a tolerance of greater bilateral friction”.
Such is this friction that the more combative edge to Sino-US ties has started to be compared to some of the tensions of the Cold War period. The report hardly shies away from the comparison either. “Given the strategic choices China’s leadership is making, the United States now acknowledges and accepts the relationship with the People’s Republic of China as the Chinese Communist Party has always framed it internally: one of great power competition,” it confirms.
Other themes in the review have been surfacing in day-to-day news, including Washington’s insistence on the right to block sales of American technology that might support China’s military and “technology-enabled authoritarianism”. That was apparent last week, when Washington added another 33 companies and government agencies from China onto a blacklist that prevents them from buying US technology on national security grounds.
Sino-US ties have also deteriorated nastily this year against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic. But what’s striking about the NSS review is the number of areas where the worldviews of the two governments were already conflicting. In this respect the common ground was limited, long before the pandemic darkened the mood.
The review makes the point that Washington’s strategy isn’t to change China’s system of government, but to defend American interests when they come under threat. For the Chinese that kind of claim will be seen as semantics, especially when the national security strategy makes so much of the clash of values between the two countries.
Another clear point of contention is the highlighting of Washington’s “strong unofficial relations” with Taiwan, alongside a reiteration of its commitment to the island’s self-defence. The Americans cite China’s military build-up in the region as the reason for more than $10 billion of arms sales to Taiwan last year. But any mention of American involvement in Taiwanese affairs is anathema to Beijing, which sees it as a flagrant transgression of China’s sovereign rights.
Similar sentiment will apply to discussion of Hong Kong, which is mentioned in the review as home to 85,000 American citizens and more than 1,300 American companies. The mood there has been tense this week, following Beijing’s passing of a new national security law for implementation in the city. In response the Trump administration has declared that Hong Kong is no longer politically “autonomous” (see page 5). Again, the Chinese view is that the Americans have no reason to involve themselves in Hong Kong’s affairs.
That’s not the interpretation of the NSS report. “While the United States has no desire to interfere in the PRC’s internal affairs, Washing-ton will be candid when Beijing strays from its international commitments and responsible behaviour, especially when United States interests are at stake,” it warned.
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