H.R. McMaster to Biden: Don’t let up on competition with China

As Joe Biden develops his strategy toward China, he should be wary of the instinct to abandon competition with Beijing in favor of cooperation. That’s the advice Lt. General H.R. McMaster, former national security advisor to President Donald Trump, hopes the president-elect heeds.

Speaking with CNN National Security Correspondent Vivian Salama during an Atlantic Council Front Page event on November 24, McMaster warned the incoming Biden administration that China will attempt to demonstrate its willingness to engage with the United States on a range of international issues as the new US president takes office. “Don’t fall for it,” McMaster advised. Beijing has no real interest in cooperating with the United States on issues such as North Korea, climate change, and trade, he maintained, and it will use the breathing space engagement affords to strengthen its competitive edge economically, diplomatically, and militarily.

Here’s a quick look at what McMaster thinks the next US administration should do to push back against Chinese aggression, along with other advice the former national security advisor gave for US policy on Afghanistan, Iran, and the Middle East:

Watch the full event:

The dangers of cooperating for cooperation’s sake

  • Avoid strategic narcissism: McMaster argued that a fundamental failure of US foreign policy since the end of the Cold War has been “strategic narcissism,” where US officials “assume that what we do or what we choose not to do is going to be decisive to accomplishing a favorable outcome.” While some in the Biden administration may believe that pursuing more engagement with Beijing on issues in the relationship may produce tangible results, McMaster warned that “Russia and China aren’t waiting around to cooperate with us or for us to lead them in a way that is consistent with what we think is in our interest or the interest of the free world.”
  • Don’t take Beijing at face value: Should the United States signal that it wants closer engagement with China, Beijing will probably make bold, but ultimately false, promises, McMaster warned. Two big olive branches may be on climate change and North Korea, he said, but Beijing has no real motivation to actually solve these challenges. “Whereas we have a North Korea strategy,” he explained, “China has a US strategy. And that US strategy is to use the issues in the region…as a wedge to drive us away from our allies and to drive the United States out of Northeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific more broadly.”
  • Why competition works: McMaster clarified that continued competition with Beijing “does not need to lead to confrontation.” In fact, he argued, pursuing “cooperation and engagement, and not competing effectively with the aggressive policies of the Chinese Communist Party, actually had us on a path of confrontation in places like the South China Sea.” By pushing back strongly against Beijing’s aggression and shoring up the United States’ competitive edge, McMaster argued, Washington can prevent dangerous escalation and block China’s path to regional supremacy.

The key to the United States’ competitive edge: Allies

  • Partners primed for success: Although headlines have focused on President Trump’s disparaging comments about US allies and open questioning of international alliances like NATO, McMaster suggested that behind-the-scenes policies have actually made this “a positive time to come in and reinvigorate multinational efforts.” US allies have begun to align their positions more closely with Washington on the threat from China, he said, pointing to “unprecedented law-enforcement cooperation on China’s sustained campaign of cyber espionage,” and reinvigoration of the “Quad” grouping of the United States, India, Australia, and Japan. “European allies are much more cognizant now in the post-COVID period of the threat from the Chinese Communist Party,” he added, while “our partners in Africa are also now deeply concerned about China’s economic aggression and the debt traps.”
  • Time for joint commitments: McMaster endorsed the idea of a broad coalition of democracies to coordinate efforts to compete against China, such as the “Democracies 10 (D10)” forum. He suggested that the United States create an “international agreement where like-minded countries agree that they will only invest in China and they will only allow Chinese investment in our countries if those investments [meet] an economic Hippocratic Oath: Do no harm.” By taking more care in screening these economic partnerships with China, these countries can ensure that they are not “enabling [the Chinese] to create servile relationships and to gain this position of primacy that is exclusionary and that compromises the sovereignty of countries.” He also argued that the United States and its allies should avoid “investing in Chinese businesses and industries that gives them a differential advantage,” or in projects that assist “the People’s Liberation Army’s effort to overmatch our militaries.”
  • Embrace competition in international organizations: At the same time, McMaster acknowledged that “alliances and multinational cooperation have to be for a purpose” and not just for cooperation’s sake. This is especially important to remember as the United States grows more frustrated with the functioning of international institutions. These organizations “are competitive spaces in and of themselves,” he explained. “There is no prize for membership. We have to compete within those organizations to ensure that China and other countries that are hostile to the free world’s interests don’t turn those organizations against their purpose.”

Avoid past mistakes in the Middle East and South Asia

  • A failure of leadership in Afghanistan: McMaster criticized the Trump administration’s plan to withdraw from Afghanistan and its continued negotiations with the Taliban. “The Trump administration’s foreign policies have fallen short mainly in areas where they doubled down on the deficiencies of the Obama administration’s policies,” he said, comparing Trump’s desire to pull troops out of Afghanistan to President Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq in 2011. “We have to be capable of at least learning from our most recent policies,” he added, arguing that a hasty US withdrawal will probably force US troops back into Afghanistan in a few years, just as US troops returned to Iraq. Should Trump follow through on his plans to pull the United States out of the conflict, “we will be back,” McMaster promised.
  • Beware the allure of a cooperative Iran: McMaster also advised the Biden team to avoid falling into the same trap on Iran that ensnared other administrations. There has been a “failure of multiple approaches toward Iran that were based on the idea that conciliation toward Iran would lead to a change in the nature of that government such that it would cease its permanent hostility.” He argued that the United States must remember the intentions of the “real Iranian regime of the supreme leader and the Guardian Council,” rather than being swayed by the empty promises of “the shop window of [Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad] Zarif and [President Hassan] Rouhani.” More importantly, he added, the Biden administration should also reject the Trump administration’s belief that “the Middle East is a mess to be avoided.” Rather than easing the burden on the United States, “our disengagement creates edgy behavior that makes the situation worse.”

David A. Wemer is associate director, editorial at the Atlantic Council. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAWemer.

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Image: US National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster talks at the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, February 17, 2018. REUTERS/Ralph Orlowski