The downward spiral in U.S.-China relations picked up speed last week with the tit-for-tat closure of consulates in each country. The Trump administration’s decision to shutter the Chinese consulate in Houston, one of its six diplomatic outposts in the United States, is the most recent move in a sweeping campaign to reframe the country’s relationship with China and correct what it considers decades of flawed, if not delusional, policy toward Beijing.
The Trump administration takes great pride in its recognition of the stark realities of great power competition, its dispensing with diplomatic niceties and its hardnosed pursuit of supremacy in that contest. It also takes equal if not greater delight in criticizing its predecessors’ policies toward China.
U.S. President Donald Trump routinely blames previous U.S. administrations, and absolved Chinese leaders, for problems in the bilateral relationship. It looks like the Trump team’s objective is as much to lock in U.S. policy toward China and constrain its successors, as it is to influence Beijing’s behavior. If so, that could create space for diplomatic maneuver for Japan, although it will take subtlety and nuance on Tokyo’s part.
The U.S. decision to close the Chinese consulate in Houston stemmed from allegations that the facility was a hub for “massive illegal spying and influence operations against the United States.” Houston, the fourth-largest U.S. city, is headquarters for the energy industry, a leading medical center, and a two-hour drive from Austin, a technology hub. The breaking point came when Chinese officials allegedly provided fake information to escort individuals to a charter flight out of the country. China was given 72 hours to close the facility, resulting in the televised spectacle of staff burning documents in barrels on the consulate’s grounds.
China’s Foreign Ministry called the closure an “unprecedented escalation” and promised retaliation. Within a week, the U.S. consulate in Chengdu was ordered to close.
A day after the decision to close the Houston consulate was made public, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a speech that capped a series of remarks by senior U.S. officials — National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, Attorney General William Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray — that were remarkable for their plain talk and the transparency of their anger. While all were directed toward U.S. audiences, the language was designed to inflame sentiment in the U.S., China and third countries.
Speaking at the Nixon Center in California, Pompeo charged that the U.S. had pursued “blind engagement with China” and that policy failed. The belief that rising prosperity in China would “inevitably” moderate its behavior, lead to opening at home and soften its foreign policy, was, he insisted, wrong. Instead, China under Xi Jinping “seeks the global hegemony of Chinese communism.”
He warned that “If we don’t act now, ultimately, the [Chinese Communist Party] will erode our freedoms and subvert the rules-based order that our free societies have worked so hard to build.” Countries now confront a choice “between freedom and tyranny,” he said and in one of those comments that seemed intended to offend, he charged that some governments “simply don’t have the ability or the courage to stand with us for the moment.”
Pompeo’s speech and the three others are part of an aggressive campaign to counter and undermine China. In addition to the trade war that has battered the U.S. and Chinese economies and spilled over into the region, Washington has restricted the activities of Chinese journalists in the U.S., sanctioned Chinese officials involved in human rights abuses in Xinjiang province as well as those connected to the new national security legislation in Hong Kong, and waged a very public effort to expose and punish Chinese espionage. It is restricting Chinese access to U.S. universities and research, cutting visas and curbing travel.
All these actions are part of the “United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China,” published earlier this year to lay out the administration’s thinking about and approach to this challenge.
As responses to Chinese actions, the administration’s moves make sense. And that list of provocations does not include the weaponization of trade against countries that challenge China, its expansionism in the South and East China Seas and in South Asia. But there are three problems with the administration’s approach.
First, its characterization of previous U.S. policy toward China is a caricature. Some policymakers may have hoped that engagement would moderate Chinese behavior, but there was no starry-eyed belief that China would become a liberal democracy. Writing in The Washington Post last weekend, Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, countered that engagement sought to “use China as a counterweight to the Soviet Union and shape China’s foreign policy, not its internal nature.” (He also noted that irony of Pompeo getting that wrong in a speech at the Nixon Center, named after the man who guided that policy.)
Second, the characterization of Chinese policy is a caricature as well. China bristles at restraints on its ambitions, and it wants regional primacy — a goal of significance for Japan. But few agree with Robert O’Brien, Trump’s national security advisor, who argued that China aims “to recreate the world according to the CCP.”
Instead, Bonnie Glaser, senior advisor to the China chair at Center for Strategic and International Studies, an influential U.S. think tank, explained via email that Beijing doesn’t seek global domination or to replace the U.S. at the apex of power, but it does want to carve out more space for itself and make the world “more advantageous to China.” Or, as Evan Feigenbaum, a former U.S. State Department official now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, offered, “Beijing aims to give itself options — and by extension, leverage — not least to push for … a larger role for itself and its preferred outcomes and standards.”
The third problem is that calling a policy a “strategy” does not make it so. An adversary must be able to connect the dots of U.S. actions to understand what is being asked of it and what it can do to craft a working relationship. There is no conversation with China about outcomes. “Stop what you are doing and heed our demands” is not a dialogue. Tit-for-tat actions are emotionally gratifying but they don’t account for different circumstances, in particular the two countries’ different cultures and societies. A race to the bottom with China competes on its terms, not ours. Most critically, whatever consistency there is in U.S. actions of late, it can be undercut in a heartbeat by a U.S. president who prioritizes relations with his “good friend” Xi, hears the promise of agricultural purchases or anticipates assistance on another problem.
The sweeping condemnations of China, the “bold” moves and the discrediting of its predecessors suggest that Steve Bannon, former strategist for the Trump administration, is on to something when he charges that recent moves “boxed in the globalists.” It sure looks like the Trump team wants to limit the options of any successor administration. And that is as egregious a misreading of current U.S. thinking about China as that of past China policy.
There is no appetite in the U.S., even among Democrats, for a more accommodating approach to China — unless they inherit a world rendered unrecognizable by the sledgehammer tactics of the Trump team. There is room for subtlety, nuance and concision in a U.S. approach guided by a strategic framework of great power competition.
Japan will face special challenges in that environment. It cannot hope for a “good cop, bad cop” approach that lets Tokyo enjoy the benefits of engagement while the U.S. pays all costs. It can aim for a division of labor that helps to maximize pressure while holding out benefits for changes in Beijing’s behavior that would align it more closely with prevailing norms. It must work closely with the U.S. and like-minded nations to support those norms and the resilience of economies and societies that stand up to China.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior advisor (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions.”