Welcome, China Watchers. This week’s very special guest host is H.R. McMaster, U.S. Army Lt. Gen. (ret.), former national security adviser under President Donald Trump, author of “Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World,” and now the Fouad and Michelle Ajami senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Over to you, H.R. — Ben Pauker, world and national security editor
As I reported for my first day of duty in the West Wing of the White House on Feb. 21, 2017, I believed that America’s strategic competence had diminished due to strategic narcissism: the tendency to define problems as one might like them to be and indulge in the conceit that others have no authorship over the future and no aspirations beyond their response to U.S. decisions and actions.
To correct that tendency, I thought it important that the Principals Committee of the National Security Council, the Cabinet-level interagency forum for consideration of foreign policy issues, ground our deliberations in what the historian Zachary Shore calls strategic empathy: an understanding of how emotions, ideology and aspirations drive and constrain others, especially rivals and enemies.
It was clear that coping with the threat from an increasingly aggressive China would require a major shift in U.S. policy from cooperation and engagement to transparent competition. Contrary to the hopes of many Americans since the opening to China in the 1970s, China had evolved into a dangerous strategic rival rather than a “responsible stakeholder” in the international order.
We needed to think clearly about the complex challenge that an increasingly aggressive Chinese Communist Party posed to the United States and like-minded liberal democracies, and develop a strategy to protect America’s vital interests.
We began with a new conceptual foundation for China competition. A “Principals’ framing session” was scheduled for the end of March 2017 to lay the groundwork for U.S.-China policy ahead of the presidential summit with Chairman Xi Jinping scheduled for April 6-7 at Mar-a-Lago. To prepare for the discussion, Matt Pottinger, senior director for Asia on the NSC staff, circulated a paper written collaboratively with the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff as well as other members of the interagency policy coordinating committee.
As with other framing sessions that initiated the development of integrated strategies in that first year of the Trump administration, the paper and the Principals’ discussion focused on understanding the emotions, aspirations and interests that drive CCP behavior; identifying vital U.S. interests at stake; assessing assumptions that underpinned previous policies; proposing U.S. policy objectives; and anticipating obstacles to progress.
At the start of the meeting, I read an excerpt from the Obama administration’s China policy that reflected the forlorn hope, across multiple U.S. administrations, that China, having been welcomed into the international community, would play by the rules and, as it prospered, liberalize its economy and, eventually, its form of governance. We had, over many years, succumbed to the cognitive traps of optimism bias and confirmation bias. The Pottinger paper was meant, in part, to jolt us back to reality.
As I looked around the room, the magnitude of what we were about to do became clear: help the president effect the most significant shift in U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War.
The timing of the framing session was important because the discussion helped set realistic expectations for the Mar-a-Lago Summit. Participants, including the president, whom Pottinger, National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn and I briefed multiple times on the new foundation for U.S. China policy, traveled to Florida armed with the context essential for candid discussions with counterparts.
The Summit, conducted amid U.S. airstrikes against a Syrian airbase in response to the Assad regime’s use of nerve gas to commit mass murder against innocents, included candid, and, at times, pointed exchanges over security issues and Chinese unfair trade and economic practices. Those exchanges and the president’s long one-on-one discussion with Xi inspired some important rhetorical results in connection with the threat from North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and an agreed stated objective of denuclearization, but no one expected the latest round of strategic and economic dialogues opened during the summit to produce immediate or significant results without a fundamental shift to a competitive approach.
Chinese officials seemed surprised and mildly concerned with the change in approach that they, no doubt, detected. They seemed confident, however, that they could lure this new administration back into complacency with the same insincere promises of impending liberalization and cooperation on issues that mattered to the United States.
But they were wrong.
The March 2017 framing session initiated sustained planning and an effort to generate bipartisan support for a new policy. The 2017 National Security Strategy and the Indo-Pacific Strategy administered a long-overdue corrective to U.S. policy and recognized China as a “strategic competitor.” After Trump’s visit to China in October 2017, the Principal’s committee recommended and the president approved integrated strategies to counter China’s economic aggression and to advance a free and open Indo-Pacific.
As with all strategies, execution was imperfect (I did not understand how steel and aluminum tariffs on our allies helped with Chinese overcapacity, overproduction and dumping, for example), but our work and the president’s decisions had produced a fundamental shift to competition with China and a multinational effort to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific as an alternative to China’s authoritarian mercantilist model.
The Shore method reveals the primary source of continuity in U.S. policy: Understanding the challenge from the CCP required particular attention to the ideology, emotions and aspirations that drive and constrain party leaders. And those will be sources of continuity in U.S. policy in the Biden administration and beyond. The CCP is obsessed with control because it fears losing its exclusive grip on power. Covid-19 may have heightened those fears and catalyzed the competition. The party’s leaders believe they have a narrow window of strategic opportunity to strengthen their rule and shift the balance of power in their favor — before China’s economy sours, before the population grows old, before other countries realize that the party is pursuing national rejuvenation at their expense, and before frailties in their authoritarian mercantilist model expose the vulnerabilities the party created in the race to surpass the United States and realize the China dream.
The party has no intention of playing by the rules associated with international law, trade, or commerce. China’s overall strategy relies on co-option and coercion at home and abroad, as well as on concealing the nature of China’s true intentions. Xi and the CCP are promoting the “China model” of one-party authoritarian rule as superior to democracy.
The end of delusion: The U.S. and other liberal democracies were slow to let go of the hope that China, having been welcomed into the international system, would play by the rules.
The Trump administration turned the assumptions that underpinned China policy on their head. We assumed that China would not play by international rules; instead, it would try to undermine and eventually replace them with new ones more sympathetic to its interests. China would continue to combine forms of economic aggression with a sustained campaign of industrial espionage. The stakes were high. Beijing’s aggressive militarism and economic bullying were designed to gain influence over strategic locations and infrastructure, and establish exclusionary areas of primacy as well as preponderant advantage in the emerging global economy.
We believed that we were in a race, but we were behind because we had remained at the starting line as China raced ahead. Absent more effective competition from the United States and partner nations, China would become more aggressive — not less — in promoting its authoritarian mercantilist model.
But no one wanted a war. A primary objective was to prevent military conflict. In early 2017, some policy experts argued that U.S. competition with China was a Thucydides Trap, creating in and of itself a high likelihood of a military conflict between the rising power and the status quo power. But we concluded that this was a false choice: complacency would make conflict more likely; an emboldened China would become more aggressive and less cooperative. A concerted multinational effort to counter CCP aggression and strengthen defense would aim to convince party leaders that they cannot accomplish their objectives through co-option, coercion, or the use of force, but they can achieve enough of their dream without doing so at the expense of their peoples’ rights or the security, sovereignty and prosperity of other nations’ citizens.
As I left the job of national security adviser after 13 months, there was much that I had hoped to help the president achieve that went unfinished. I was convinced, however, that the shift to a competitive approach to China was important, had bipartisan support and was likely to continue across multiple administrations.
HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSES
Despite the CCP’s undeniable record of aggression, some countries, international corporations and investors continue to call for a warm relationship with China as an end in itself. The CCP is doubling down on efforts to co-opt elites through insincere pledges to work on global issues, such as climate change, more false promises of impending liberalization and the ever-present lure of short-term profits through access to the Chinese market, investments and loans.
But the danger is clear now that the U.S. government has ended its self-delusion. Co-option makes countries and corporations dependent and vulnerable to coercion.
Meanwhile, back in China, the party uses propaganda and artificial intelligence technology to co-opt and coerce its own population. It engages in brutal forms of repression, including a campaign of slow genocide against the Uighurs in Xinjiang province and mass arrests of those in Hong Kong and elsewhere who have the temerity to criticize the government or advocate for freedom. Recent actions to shut international companies out of the Chinese market for offering even mild criticism of forced labor and other human rights violations should serve as a warning that it is becoming more difficult to do business in China without compromising principles. Those concerned with corporate environment, social and governance (ESG) standards should be incensed.
But, avarice encourages serial gullibility and moral complacency. For example, the proposed investment deal between the People’s Republic of China and the European Union is based, in part, on a reprise of the same empty pledges China made upon entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001. Corporate executives and Europe’s leaders need to wake up.
It doesn’t matter which hat Xi Jinping wears, the M.O. is always the same: say the opposite of what he does.
Free trade Xi signs a draft Comprehensive Agreement on Investment with Europe while punishing Australia economically and shutting down international retailers who object to the use of slave labor in Xinjiang.
Environmentalist Xi promises carbon neutrality by 2060 while China finances and builds scores of coal-fired power plants around the world every year.
Human rights Xi gives speeches on rule of law while he interns millions in concentration camps, extends the party’s repressive arm into Hong Kong, imprisons freedom activists and holds two Canadians (Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig) hostage for over two years.
Internationalist Xi extols the virtues of cooperation while he turns international organizations, such as the World Health Organization and the U.N. Human Rights Council, against their purpose.
Visionary Xi speaks of a “community of common destiny” while his army bludgeons Indian soldiers to death on the Himalayan frontier; his cyber forces continue a massive campaign of espionage; his air force menaces Taiwan, South Korea and Japan; and his navy, coast guard and maritime militias try to exert ownership over the ocean in the South China Sea.
Do not fall for it. The United States and its allies should not permit Xi to get away with his Orwellian reversal of the truth.
Support the Biden administration on China: The Biden administration deserves bipartisan and international support as it competes with an increasingly aggressive CCP. The draft “Strategic Competition Act of 2021,” put forward by Democrats and Republicans in Congress is encouraging. So is Friday’s visit of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to Washington and the Biden administration’s continued emphasis on the Quad format with Australia, India and Japan to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific.
It is past time, however, for European allies and key leaders in the private sector to acknowledge the need to compete resolutely with the CCP. This is an area in which the Biden administration might administer some tough love. Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently told NATO allies that the United States will not force them to choose between Washington and Beijing.
But backing away from competition with the CCP — even as it sanctions European diplomats for censoring the genocide in Xinjiang — surrenders moral authority. There is a choice to be made here. And some European leaders are choosing servitude over sovereignty. Only if leaders of the world’s largest economies work together across the public and private sectors will we be able to counter China’s strategy of co-option, coercion and concealment and build a better future for generations to come.
Follow H.R. McMaster on Twitter @ltghrmcmaster.
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Suga will become the first foreign leader to meet in-person with President Joe Biden when they hold a U.S.-Japan summit on Friday in Washington. Ahead of the meeting, China Watcher contributor Shirley Martey Hargis spoke with June Teufel Dreyer, University of Miami political science professor and former commissioner of the United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission. They discussed possible outcomes of the summit and challenges that Japan, the U.S. and Taiwan face in their dealings with China.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
CHINA WATCHER: Suga has publicly spoken against China’s treatment of Uighurs and Hong Kong but Japan has not imposed sanctions. Might this be something that will be discussed during the summit?
DREYER: Japan will be reluctant, especially because of China’s response in the Global Times to Suga’s open comments. China also dragged in the Taiwan question, stating “China-Japan ties will spiral downward sharply if Japan gets involved in the Taiwan question, and any foreign military interference will invite the fiercest retaliation from China, experts warned.”
CHINA WATCHER: Speaking of dragging in the Taiwan question, what do you think Biden will want from Japan on Taiwan?
DREYER: Biden will want the Japanese commitment to help the U.S. in the event of an attack on Taiwan. For obvious reasons, Japan will be reluctant to do that, especially now that they have been explicitly warned by the ilk of Global Times. One doesn’t doubt that the Chinese government is behind Global Times on this issue, at least. As outlined in the mutual defense treaty, Japan has assumed responsibility to aid the U.S. in the waters joining Japan (shuhen jitai).
CHINA WATCHER: Japanese officials have called Taiwan’s safety a “red line” for Japan. Considering that, how do you think Tokyo feels about the close relationship Biden is forging with Taiwan? For example, he recently eased limits on high-level visitations.
DREYER: I think they’re happy about it, but they are also apprehensive because, on the one hand, “Biden is doing this, and this is good.” On the other hand, “What are the potential repercussions for us?” So, they’re looking for a sweet spot. They want the U.S. to support Taiwan, but they don’t want to have to be confronted with having to live up to their commitment to helping defend the shuhen jitai.
CHINA WATCHER: What’s the thinking in Tokyo about talk, especially in recent years, that Taiwan needs to improve its defense to protect itself from potential Chinese attack?
DREYER: The idea that tiny Taiwan could all by itself hold off the People’s Liberation Army is a ridiculous statement. Some make that comment because the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) mandates that the U.S. provide Taiwan with defensive arms to maintain a military balance in the Taiwan Strait. However, that was written when the PRC was extremely weak. Now that it is strong, the language in the TRA is still there. Nobody wants to start tinkering with the TRA for fear that it will end up worse than it started out. It is convenient to cite the TRA because it’s legitimate, and it’s there … but the notion of Taiwan being able to defend itself is no longer valid.
CHINA WATCHER: How do you think Japan interpreted the outcome of the Alaska Summit?
DREYER: Japan is in an odd position. On the one hand, it does not want to be dragged into anybody else’s wars and confrontations. On the other hand, they don’t want to be abandoned by the United States. Geographically they’re stuck — like it or not, they have China next door, and there’s nothing they can do about it. I think they were mostly pleased by the fact that Blinken and [National Security Adviser Jake] Sullivan did not back down against China and did take a tough stand. On the other hand, in the back of their mind, “uh oh, we’re in the way if there’s a war.”
Thanks to: Editor John Yearwood, Ben Pauker, Luiza Ch. Savage, Shirley Martey Hargis and Matt Kaminski.
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