Even with all news noise focusing on the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation fight and the “not NAFTA” trade agreement among the U.S., Mexico and Canada, it would be a mistake to miss this week’s most significant geopolitical development:
The dramatic unfolding of the Trump administration’s intensified offensive on China.
The administration’s clearest and most comprehensive broadside on China yet followed what one official called “thousands of hours” of study and planning. It will involve agencies across the U.S. government, from the Pentagon to the U.S. Trade Representative. The consequences will be both immediate and potentially generational for global economic and security matters.
Senior officials in Beijing have increasingly worried that President Donald Trump, with his new tariffs on more than $200 billion of Chinese imports, wasn’t just acting as a deal-maker seeking greater leverage for market openings. They suspected a shift was afoot in Washington to more fundamentally address the Chinese challenge.
Now the Chinese have their answer.
What lies behind a series of administration statements and actions was a deepening conviction that Trump’s predecessors have done too little to respond to years of unfair Chinese trade practices, cyber transgressions, rapid military growth, growing technological prowess and the underlying strategic consequences of the so-called Belt and Road economic initiative, whose aggregate investment and loan figures are a multiple of the Marshall Plan.
Four pieces of news this week underscore the far-reaching, multi-faceted nature of the Trump administration efforts aimed at China, with senior officials promising more in the weeks ahead.
- A landmark speech by Vice President Mike Pence at the Hudson Institute, calling out China as America’s foremost threat, ahead of Russia, due to both the scope and seriousness of its activities abroad and within the United States.
- An underreported aspect of the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement that requires all three parties to inform the others if they begin trade talks with “non-market economies” (read China). Trump administration officials view it as a template for trade deals to follow.
- A leaked report that the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet has proposed a series of military operations during a single week in November to send a warning to China and to provide a deterrent to Beijing’s regional military ambitions.
- On Friday, the Pentagon released the results of a yearlong look at vulnerabilities in America’s manufacturing and military industrial base. “China represents a significant and growing risk to the supply of materials deemed strategic and critical to U.S. national security,” including a “widely used and specialized metals, alloys and other materials, including rare earths and permanent magnets,” the report says.
Pence went far beyond Trump’s UN speech statement that China was acting to influence American elections against him. Pence said for the first time, echoing a view held by Trump since before his presidential campaign, that “what the Russians are doing pales in comparison to what China is doing across this country.”
Pence acknowledged that Trump has built a strong personal relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping and that they’ve worked together on issues of common interest, particularly the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
But, said Pence, “the American people deserve to know … Beijing is employing a whole-of-government approach, using political, economic and military tools, as well as propaganda, to advance its influence and benefit its interests in the United States. China is also applying this power in more proactive ways than ever before, to exert influence and interfere in the domestic policy and politics of our country.”
Some will argue that the timing of the Trump-China reset has an electoral purpose ahead of U.S. midterms elections. However, the comprehensive approach ensures it will last long beyond November. It also reflects a shift of thinking among American experts regarding China. Most have abandoned the hope that Chinese economic growth would bring with it democratic change, a greater embrace of individual rights and thus greater common cause with the U.S.
The Trump administration’s new efforts carry with them considerable risks, which ultimately may be greater than during the Cold War years. For all of Moscow’s nuclear capability, its sclerotic economic system never made it much of an economic competitor. The Soviet Union also never was as integrated in the global economy. By some measures, such as purchasing price parity, China already became the world’s largest economy in 2014.
Although such epic, historic contests never begin with military conflict in mind, they frequently end that way.
“The real lesson of history,” writes Anthony Cordesman of CSIS, paraphrasing Santayana, “is that it really doesn’t matter whether one remembers the past or not. One repeats it anyway.”
Graham Allison of Harvard popularized the concept of “Thucydides Trap,” namely that when one great power displaces another, war is most often the result. He argued this week that to avoid that outcome this time around the U.S. and China will require the kind of “extreme imagination” that has failed them thus far.
The Trump administration’s China shift is one of its boldest moves yet. Far more difficult will be to forge a strategy that manages the competition without conflict and deploys “extreme imagination” to create a world order that defends U.S. interests and embraces a risen China.
This article originally appeared on CNBC.com
Frederick Kempe is president and chief executive officer of the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @FredKempe. Subscribe to his weekly InflectionPoints newsletter.