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 that Chinese students are almost all “spies”. On September 13th, Republican Representative Francis Rooney introduced the Stop Higher Education Espionage and Theft Act. Recently, the US Department of Justice investigated several foreign media outlets in the US, including Xinhua News Agency and CGTN. 

Seventh, the US pursues the Indo-Pacific Strategy to put up a geo-economic and geo-strategy architecture to counter China. At the end of last year, the Trump administrationofficially announced the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy” to ensure its allies in the region are aware of the risks China’s rise may bring about and that all countries in the region counter China together.  One important meaning of so-called “free” is that countries in the region are free from the coercion of others and maintain their free and democratic institutions at home. The so-called “open” means that maritime transport lanes and trade and investment in the Indo-Pacific region are open. Senior American officials have openly criticized China on many occasions for “predatory economics” and lack of transparency in infrastructure investment, and accused the Belt and Road Initiative of setting debt traps for countries concerned, undermining their sovereign interests and damaging regional security. Since the Indo-Pacific Strategy was introduced, the US has been working to flesh out and operationalize this strategy. Its efforts include improving the US-Japan-India-Australia coordination mechanism, changing the name of the US Pacific Command into Indo-Pacific Command, developing the “Indo-Pacific Economic Vision” and security cooperation initiative, and taking joint actions with allies including Japan and Australia in regional infrastructure, energy security, digital economy and cyber security. 

Eighth, the American elites shared highly converging negative views on China, which has never been seen since Nixon’s visit to China. First, the executive and legislative branches of the government are highly converged on China, as evidenced by the Taiwan Travel Act and the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 passed with a rare high vote in the Congress and signed by Trump. Second, democrats have joined the campaign against China. For example, Madeleine Albright, a democrat and former Secretary of State, said explicitly that China, not Russia, is America’s biggest adversary.  Third, traditional mainstream media have also rooted for Trump’s actions. Mainstream media in the US, to some extent, appear to be more active than the Trump administration. When positive progress emerges in China-US trade talks, they would criticize the Trump administration for starting with a high price but coming to terms with a little concession. They describe Trump’s way of negotiation as much cry and little done.Fourth, the academia has also come to provide theoretical backing for Trump administration’s strategic assessments and actions toward China. This year, Foreign Affairs and TheNational Interest have published a series of important academic writings, which claimed that “Washington now faces its most dynamic and formidable competitor in modern history. Getting this challenge right will require doing away with the hopeful thinking that has long characterized the United States’ approach to China.” “The US should get ready for a second Cold War.” As American politics is in the most polarized moment since the Civil War, political stalemate makes diplomatic affairs a potential growth point for bipartisan cooperation in the US- a view that is contained in a research report published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies on September 26th.

Ninth, the US demonizes China to mobilize an ideological campaign against China in the US and the world. One important concept being used is the so-called “state capitalism”. The US believes that China’s economic model is totally different from the so-called “free market capitalism” espoused by the US and the West. It uses state subsidies to support mercantile capitalist brands, adopts a beggar-thy-neighbor approach, and provides China with powerful weapons such as illegal subsidies and currency manipulation to take other countries’ market and destroy their job opportunities. Under such circumstances, even the strongest Western private companies cannot compete with Chinese companies, which are backed by a powerful government that provides them with unlimited ammunition to monopolize the markets. If the West fails to counter such a model, free market capitalism will lose in the competition with state capitalism. Even Western values and way of life will be subverted. This shows that China-US strategic competition has gone beyond the material level and specific issues and involved ideologies and development models. As such, China-US strategic tussles increasingly smack of a Cold War. 

Tenth, the US has put forward the “whole of government”concept for organizational mobilization in its strategic competition against China. In the face of governance crisis in the West and China’s rise in the wake of the financial crisis, there has emerged a debate among Western academics since 2011 on the pros and cons of “free market capitalism” and “state capitalism”. To uphold “free market capitalism” and make sure it wins over “state capitalism”, American strategists believe that Western countries need to update and improve politicalorganization capabilities, especially government’s capabilities, to cope with China’s system. As such, they come up with a new concept “whole of government” that stems from America’s experience with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Essentially, it means the US integrates resources across the government and makes a unified strategy toward China, which is different from the past when government functions overlapped without proper coordination. This concept has been adopted by the government and put in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019. 

Eleventh, the US tactics toward China become clearer and the “grey zone” strategyis being used in its strategic competition against China. The “grey zone”strategy is a concept that has caught on in the US strategic community in recent years. The “grey zone” is between war (black) and peace (white). It is about using non-warfare ways that are somewhere between normal diplomacy during peace times and massive direct military conflicts to maintain and advance special strategic goals. Important means include diplomatic pressure and blackmail that goes beyond normal diplomatic relations; economic pressure that goes beyond normal economic competition; covert espionage, infiltration and sabotage; traditional military actions executed by law enforcement forces or regular armies disguised as civilians; proxy wars; operations by special forces; cyber and information warfare; threat of war or nuclear war, etc. This strategy mainly follows the below principles: 1. Asymmetry. Using methods one is best at to impose pressure on its adversary in areas where it is weak. 2. Integrated means. Using integrated means, political, economic, military and diplomatic, to advance the goal for pressure once it is set. 3. Taking by surprise. 4. Choosing an appropriate point to intentionally test the bottom line of the adversary while making it unable to respond. Recent US actions against China show that some means and principles of this strategy are being used.  

Twelfth, the US strategy toward China is becoming clear at different levels. The Trump administration defines China as a strategic competitor, proving that its strategic goal toward China is very clear, which is to curtail the momentum of China’s development. Whether such a strategy can be effectively implemented depends on the goals set at different levels. The competition between China and the US in recent period shows that the goals at three levels are becoming clear. 1. Confinement.By launching a trade war and reshaping international rules, it forces China to increase imports and further open its market, regulates and pressures China in technology so as to maintain US monopoly and advantage in technology. 2.Decoupling. If China does not change as it demands, the US will reduce its linkage and connection with the Chinese economy, for example by moving the industrial chain outside China, and, at the same time, distances itself from China politically and weakens its strategic cooperation with China. 3. A new type of cold war.In his speech on October 4th, US Vice President Pence sent a similar message to the world. The message, which follows a clear logic at the three levels, has sparked extensive discussions in the US political and strategic communities. 

    By describing the features of the current US policy toward China, we could see that America’s China policy is undergoing a complete and overarching change. Such a change starts with the logic that China is the principal strategic competitor and is mainly manifest by the trade war. The pattern of competition and confrontation now involves almost all aspects of China-US relations. On top of that, the US has developed a set of strategic ideas, concepts and tools vis-à-vis China, making the change in its China policy a systemic one. With the escalating trade war and its frequent actions in different areas, the US has set the tone for its China policy as competition through Pence’s speech on October 4th. China-US relations are in a new era of competition in all areas, a completely new circumstance that calls for a cool head and necessary preparations. 

Ni Feng is Deputy Director of the Institute of American Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.