Features of the Current US Policy Toward China

By Ni Feng 

Major shifts have occurred in China-US relations since late 2017. Focusing on economic and trade issues, the Trump administration has launched intensive actions against China in a wide range of areas, adding twists and turns to the relationship between the two countries and portending a rocky future ahead. As Cui Tiankai, Chinese Ambassador to the US said, China and the US are once again at a moment to make a historic choice for their relations. What rivets people’s attention among the dramatic changes is that America’s China policy is experiencing the most extensive and profound shifts since Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. “Trade war” is being used to characterize frictions and conflicts between the two countries. In fact, what the US is doing goes far beyond economic and trade dimensions and involves almost all aspects of bilateral relations. Changes are also seen in the US perception and concept of China, its goal toward China as well as its domestic political environment. These changes are transforming China-US relations, edging the two countries toward competition, confrontation and conflict. 

First, major changes have taken place in America’s strategic assessment of China and its policy toward China. Since December 18th, 2017, the Trump administration has released the National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy and Nuclear Posture Review. For the first time in official documents, the US defines China as a “strategic competitor” and “revisionist”, claiming that “The central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security is the re-emergence of long-term, strategic competition by what the National Security Strategy classifies as revisionist powers” , and that “these competitions require the United States to rethink the policies of the past two decades - policies based on the assumption that engagement with rivals and their inclusion in international institutions and global commerce would turn them into benign actors and trustworthy partners. For the most part, this premise turned out to be false.” On October 4th, US Vice President Pence made a lengthy speech on America’s China policy at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank. In the speech, Pence lashed out at China and described in unprecedented details the US perception of China as a strategic competitor. There has never been a US vice president who made a critical speech with China as the sole target since the Nixon administration. All these mark qualitative changes in the US government’s strategic assessment of China and its China policy, changes that are bound to be overarching and systematic. 

Second, economy and trade, previously known as the “ballast stone” of China-US relations, is turning to be the “major battlefield” of the two countries. Since the end of the Cold War, economy and trade has been the most important bond that connects China and the US. The two countries are each other’s most important trading partners that are deeply interdependent. It was generally believed that China-US economic relations are win-win. Trump, however, believes that China wins and America loses. The US, he argues, suffers in all respects and will be ultimately devoured by the “red dragon” in such economic relations. As such, Trump launched a massive trade war against China with three goals in mind. Goal 1: China significantly cuts the trade deficit the US currently runs. Goal 2: China substantially opens its market and improves American companies’market access to China. Goal 3: China changes its current policy to subsidize emerging industries and even abandons the “Made in China 2025” plan. To achieve these goals, the Trump administration has stepped up efforts. The US announced additional 25% tariffs on US$50 billion imports from China on July 6th, and additional 10% tariffs on another US$200 billion on September 18th. By scale, the China-US trade war is never seen in history. At the same time, the Trump administration is turning trade frictions into a “war on systems”. Trump claims that what he does is not only for interests, but also against China’s “economic model”, and that China’s market distortion practices are intolerable. The Trump administration has even gone so far as to start rebuilding international trade order. As the trade war escalates, the “ballast stone” of China-US relations is being shaken and may even be turned over. 

Third, the US continues to test China’s bottom line on the Taiwan issue. The One-China policy is the political cornerstone of China-US relations and China’s core interest. The US, however, has continued to challenge China’s bottom line. On January 10th and March 1st, the US House of Representatives and Senate passed the Taiwan Travel Act on votes of 435-0 and 100-0 respectively, which, in a disguised form, makes US-Taiwan relations official. In August, the US Congress passed and Trump signed the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019. The US moves further on the Taiwan part to boost Taiwan’s military capabilities and confidence in engaging in wars. It encourages, supports and even instigates Taiwan to confront the Chinese mainland. The US “Six Assurances” to Taiwan are thus raised to the level of legislation to help Taiwan develop asymmetric warfare capabilities, strengthen military training and exchanges and enhance reserve, and provide Taiwan with weapons it needs. In so doing, the US makes use of Taiwan as a bargaining chip to pressure and contain China. On September 24th, the US Department of Defense said it had notified the Congress of the consent to provide Taiwan with weapons worth US$330 million. It goes without saying that the Taiwan issue has become an important chip the Trump administration uses to impose pressure on China. Risks are fast building up that the two countries may enter into confrontation. 

Fourth, the US regards the South China Sea issue as a symbolic arena for China-US confrontation. Since Trump took office, the US has insisted that China’s building on South China Sea islands and reefs is tantamount to militarization, and has therefore stepped up military, diplomatic, political and strategic deployment in the South China Sea to enhance “actions for freedom of navigation”. Recently, the US has notably increased the frequency of “free navigation patrols” in the South China Sea. In April, two American B-52 bombers took off in Guam and flew across the Bashi Strait and above the seas to the east of Dongsha Islands. The point of return is only 250 kilometers from the coast of Guangdong Province at the shortest distance. The launch of BGM-109 cruise missile was simulated, making the flight a typical attack pattern. In an interview on June 1st, Kenneth F. McKenzie, Director of the Joint Staff and Lieutenant General of the Marine Corps Forces, threatened that the US military has a lot of experience in destroying small islands in the West Pacific, which is a core capability of the US military. At the Shangri-La Dialogue, US Defense Secretary James Mattis once again played up the South China Sea issue, saying that if China does not find a way to cooperate more with countries, with which it has competing interests, there will be tremendous consequences. Aboard a US P-8A Poseidon military surveillance aircraftthat flew over the South China Sea in early August, a CNN military correspondent took pictures of China’s building on the islands and reefs and made sensational reports of so-called militarization of the South China Sea. In mid-August, the Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier strike group navigated into the South China Sea for joint military exercises with other countries and made port calls on Southeast Asia countries. On September 30th, the Chinese 052C destroyer and the US Decatur destroyer came into a close approach, which means that confrontation between the two countries may further escalate. 

Fifth, the US blocks exchanges between the two militaries and creates a confrontational atmosphere. At a time when China and the US enters into intensifying strategic competition, maintaining normal mil-to-mil exchanges is crucial for upholding strategic stability in bilateral relations. The Trump administration, however, runs in a different direction. After the US military disinvited the Chinese Navy from the RIMPAC Exercise in May, the US Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 in August, which, in the form of legislation, disinvites the Chinese Navy from the RIMPAC Exercise, requests more content on China’s military capabilities in the annual DoD report, and intensifies competition with China in cyberspace and outer space. On September 20th, the US State Department announced sanctions on the Equipment Development Department of China’s Central Military Commission and its director, which marks yet another significant escalation of efforts on the US side to sabotage China-US military relations. Taken together with US military actions in the South China Sea, these moves show that the US side has shifted channels and resorted to a confrontational approach to the relations between the two militaries. 

Sixth, the US takes people-to-people exchange as an extended battlefield. People-to-people exchange used to be the most positive and least controversial in China-US relations. Even this area cannot stay unaffected. In an open letter on February 5th, US Senator for Florida Marco Rubio accused Confucius Institutes of carrying out activities to expand China’s influence and called on American academic institutions to terminate cooperation programs with Confucius Institutes, which he claimedteach a distorted version of history. On May 31st, the US State Department announced its plan to shorten the length of validity for some visas issued to Chinese citizens. According to the new policy, US consular officers may set restrictions on the length of visa validity, instead of issuing visas of the longest valid duration as they previously did. The instructions for the US embassies and consulates indicate that if Chinese students pursue graduate studies in robotics, space and high-tech manufacturing, their visas will only be valid for one year. Their rational for this is that these areas are priorities identified in the “Made in China 2025” plan. At a dinner in August, US President Trump hinted