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Washington’s Stance on China and Russia

Fits and Starts of Confrontation and Cooperation

US President Donald Trump (L) and China’s President Xi Jinping shake hands at a press conference following their meeting outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. (Getty)

A new “National Security Strategy” dubs Moscow and Beijing a challenge to American security and prosperity — but White House policies toward the two great powers are not altogether hostile.

by Joseph Braude*

In December 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump released a new edition of the “National Security Strategy of the United States of America” (NSS) — a document all American presidents have produced since required to do so in 1986 by the “Goldwater-Nichols Act.” (The legislation calls on the White House to review America’s global “interests, goals, and objectives”; explain “proposed short-term and long-term uses of the political, economic, military, and other elements of the national power”; and signal to Congress what practical and budgetary implications the strategy brings to bear on government.) The introduction to Trump’s NSS asserts that the new strategy helps fulfill his promise to “make America great again” by “put[ting] the safety, interests, and wellbeing of our citizens first.”

The document describes a “competitive world” in which rivals jostle for power and influence. Among America’s chief rivals, it singles out two “revisionist powers” in particular: “China and Russia challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity. They are determined to make economies less free and less fair, to grow their militaries, and to control information and data to repress their societies and expand their influence.” With respect to China, it says that Beijing seeks to “displace the U.S. in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reach of its state-driven economic model and reorder the region in its favor.” It notes evidence of further, more global aspirations as well. With respect to Russia, it assesses the country as seeking “to restore its great power status and establish spheres of influence near its borders” and beyond. It also argues that the pursuit of these ambitions puts Russia in an adversarial position toward the United States: “Russia aims to weaken U.S. influence in the world and divide us from our allies and partners. Russia views the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and European Union (EU) as threats. Russia is investing in new military capabilities, including nuclear systems that remain the most significant existential threat to the United States, and in destabilizing cyber capabilities.” The NSS also refers to Russian interference in “the domestic political affairs of countries around the world.”

In laying out a response to these threats, the NSS states that the U.S. “stands ready to cooperate across areas of mutual interest with both countries …” but also “will respond to the growing political, economic, and military competitions we face around the world.”

It was hardly surprising that, upon the document’s release, both Moscow and Beijing reacted critically. Dmitry Peskov, chief spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said that the language and substance of the document betrayed “an imperialist character … We cannot agree with an attitude that sees our country as a threat to the United States. At the same time, there are some modestly positive aspects, in particular, the readiness to cooperate in areas that correspond to American interests.” As to China’s reaction, Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry in Beijing, rejected the American charge that China was intimidating its neighbors and seeking in any sense to dominate beyond its borders: “We urge the United States to stop intentionally distorting China’s strategic intentions and to abandon outdated notions such as the Cold War mentality and zero-sum game. Otherwise it will only harm itself or others.”

US President Donald Trump (L) chats with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin as they attend the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting, part of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders’ summit in the central Vietnamese city of Danang on November 11, 2017. (Getty)

SIMILAR OR DIFFERENT FROM PRIOR STRATEGIES?

The 2017 NSS represents a departure in tone from prior editions in its recurring reference to “competition” as an animating principle in American foreign policy, both hard power and soft. But to what extent does it reflect a truly different outlook with respect to its assessment of Russia and China?

On China, supporters of President Obama’s policies toward Beijing tend to find stark change in the Trump NSS. In an interview with National Public Radio, Graham Webster, a U.S.-China relations researcher at Yale Law School, assessed the new approach as “pretty much a direct about-face from where they were in the Obama plan, where they were talking about welcoming China’s rise in a certain way.” Graham said he saw the Obama Administration as seeking to develop Beijing as a “strategic partner.” Citing the “Paris agreement” on climate change and a range of international disaster response efforts in which the U.S. and China worked together, Graham opined that Obama White House experiences validated a less confrontational approach. As to longtime advocates of a tougher line on China, they were heartened by the Trump document. “The key acknowledgement in the strategy is that China views us as their chief geopolitical rival, as they have for 20 years,” Dan Blumenthal, a former Pentagon China official now with the American Enterprise Institute, told the Washington Post. “In the United States, we are just waking up to it now.”

As to the Trump NSS take on Russia, the tough stance came as something of a surprise to American observers, in part because on the campaign trail candidate Trump had repeatedly called for a warming of ties with Moscow. Nor did the subsequent controversy over alleged Russian manipulation of the U.S. elections to benefit Trump — and related, widespread belief that Russian officials colluded with the Trump campaign — appear to portend a heightened confrontational stance. American analysts tend to understand the sharp NSS language on Russia as either a soberly apolitical assessment by the document’s authors or an effort to show the public that the Administration is in no way beholden to Moscow — or perhaps some combination of both.

THE RECORD ON IMPLEMENTATION

As to the extent to which ideas about China and Russia expressed in the NSS have been applied, the record is complex.

With respect to Russia, on the one hand, the Trump Administration has taken tough measures in various arenas that appeared to signal a more aggressive stance toward Moscow. Shortly after taking office, the Trump Administration imposed sanctions on a close Putin ally and provided Ukraine with anti-tank weapons that served to bolster its defenses against Russia. U.S. strikes on pro-Assad units in Eastern Syria in February 2018 is believed to have killed numerous Russian servicemen. White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that Trump “has been tougher on Russia in the first year than Obama was in eight years combined.” On the other hand, in January 2018, to the chagrin of lawmakers in both parties, the Trump Administration chose to delay imposition of new sanctions on Russia at the deadline mandated by Congress. The sanctions had been meant largely to punish Russia for its interference in the 2016 elections. As to foreign arenas, American strikes in Syria, however bold, nonetheless come in the broader context of a policy many view as having accepted Russian ally Bashar al-Assad’s hold on power and Russian ally Iran’s increasing military footprint in the country — at that, near the border with Israel.

With respect to China, on the one hand, President Trump’s defense secretary, James Mattis, has reaffirmed the American commitment to defend Japan and other allies from Chinese military encroachment. China conveyed its consternation, moreover, when in July 2017 the U.S. reportedly sent ships in the waters around the disputed Parcel islands in the South China Sea. Furthermore, Trump’s new plan to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports will effect U.S. trade with China, which produces large amounts of both — though steel and aluminum on their own account only for a small fraction of Chinese exports to the U.S. On the other hand, the U.S. has also sent signals it wants to boost cooperation with China — as in Trump’s visit to Beijing, in which he clarified his acceptance of the status quo with regard to the “One-China” policy. And new indications from Pyongyang of a potential readiness to negotiate an end to the North Korean nuclear program reflect ongoing Chinese-American efforts to pressure the hermit kingdom, and a potential outcome Beijing would likely welcome.

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Joseph Braude
Middle East specialist Joseph Braude is the author of Broadcasting Change: Arabic Media as a Catalyst for Liberalism (Rowman & Littlefield). He is Advisor to the Al-Mesbar Center for Research and Studies and tweets@josephbraude.

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