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3 May 2017, Gateway House

Trump-Xi: time to be forthright

China is coming in from a position of strength to challenge American primacy in the Asia-Pacific, and the Trump administration needs to abjure the hopeful, hesitant approach of its predecessors

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What are Asian countries to make of President Donald Trump’s effusive embrace of President Xi Jinping?

Whether tactical or temporary, the U.S. president hasn’t stopped praising his Chinese counterpart since the Mar-a-Lago summit, calling him “a great leader,” “a very good person,” even “a fantastic person” who is going to help him deal with the threat from North Korea.

Whether Xi delivers on his promise, Trump’s enthusiasm is not infectious, at least not in Asian capitals caught in China’s encirclement strategy and unbridled global ambitions.

Since the U.S. elections and the roll out of Trump’s unstructured presidency, the Chinese have become more emboldened, essentially telling their Asian interlocutors they need to reassess their alliance with the U.S. and adjust to a greater Chinese presence. The Chinese say the U.S. is now looking inward, mired in a million domestic disputes and unwilling or unable to engage with the outside world.

The message is being carried by state-affiliated Chinese think tanks, academics and retired Chinese military officers. While Trump talks about America First, the Chinese message machine stresses how important Asian prosperity and stability are to Beijing. As proof they list Chinese investment pledges all around, from the Philippines to Bangladesh, from Pakistan to Cambodia. And they no longer feel the compulsion to label China’s rise as “peaceful.”

Over the years, the United States has focused on China’s strategic challenge only sporadically, choosing to repeatedly battle Russia instead. In China’s case, American strategists have essentially lived on hope – that inclusion in the international system would alter their outlook, that a thirst for democracy will ultimately destroy the hold of the Communist Party, that an overheated economy will force adjustments, that the lure of capitalism will overpower other instincts, that globalisation will prevail. An addiction to cheap Chinese goods fed this “hope” strategy, obscuring Chinese incursions, acquisitions and ambitions, both economic and military.

During the eight years of the Obama administration, China pushed the envelope further and further, establishing new facts on the seas and declaring an Air Defence Identification Zone that covers a large area of the East China Sea–with no real pushback from Washington. President Obama’s pivot to Asia–later called “rebalance”–was weak and half-hearted.

The question is: will the next four years mark a change? Or will the same hesitant “pivot” continue under another name? The Trump administration has so far said nothing publicly about territorial disputes in the South China Sea, a major marker for those countries at risk of the Chinese “embrace” they do not want.

While senior Trump administration officials–from Vice President Mike Pence to Defence Secretary James Mattis–have travelled to Asia to reassure allies, their message has been undermined by presidential euphoria about the Chinese president. The mixed messaging raises fears about a G-2 condominium, especially after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson repeated Chinese talking points on “great power relations” on his visit to Beijing.

Obama was also enticed by the G-2 idea only to abandon it after a painful learning curve and damaging consequences, especially in U.S. relations with India. If Trump goes down the same path, the uncertainties in the Indian mind will harden.

Some key people in the Trump White House, especially his chief strategist Steve Bannon, “get it.” They realise the real competitor and strategic rival is China, not Russia. But the Kissinger-led establishment rarely allows any straying off the old aspirational policy of trying to absorb China into the international order to encourage its transformation into a democracy while maintaining a favourable balance of power in the Asia-Pacific.

That the policy hasn’t worked is there for all to see. China has exploited the opportunities, become stronger, richer and more aggressive, and is increasingly challenging the U.S. and others. It doesn’t want to be just another part of the global system.

Last week the Senate Armed Services Committee heard from scholars who painted a detailed picture of Beijing’s multifold strategy for a new Eurasian order with China at the centre and the U.S. pushed increasingly to the fringes.

China is already building its military capabilities to prevent U.S. intervention along its maritime periphery, upgrading its nuclear forces to ensure effective retaliation against Washington and trying to establish a permanent naval presence in the Indian Ocean. In addition, China is busy finding ports to support a naval presence along both East and West African coasts.

The timeline for China’s global military presence is estimated to be around mid-century, according to Ashley Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who testified in front of the committee. Tellis, who has written extensively about China’s ambitions, presented a picture detailed enough to serve as a rude wake-up call.

Aaron Friedberg, professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, said that the U.S. “lacks a strategy for dealing with an increasingly powerful and assertive China”. What’s there are “the remnants” of a strategy first put into place over two decades ago which are “largely disconnected” and in “varying states of disrepair”.

By contrast, China has a clear strategy, driven by “a mix of ambition, even arrogance and deep insecurity,” according to Friedberg. It’s no longer based on Deng Xiaoping’s advice to the nation to “hide its capabilities, and bide its time”. Under Xi, China wants to write the rules while weakening and breaking America’s alliances.

Both Tellis and Friedberg said the change came with the global financial crisis in 2008. Chinese strategists judged that “the U.S. was declining more rapidly than they had expected, while China was rising more quickly than they had hoped,” Friedberg said.

Tellis said it was a “key moment” for China’s “strategic evolution” and Beijing felt it was a “conclusive” signal that American hegemony was ending. This led to a “more ostentatious display of its expanding ambition.”

To counter China, Washington should take a more robust, forthright stand. Tellis said the U.S. should reject Chinese claims over various maritime features and overturn existing U.S. policy of not taking a position; launch an international public diplomacy campaign against China’s expropriation; consider sanctions against Chinese entities involved in reclamation and construction on the “usurped maritime features;” provide appropriate technology to Southeast Asian nations to monitor Chinese activity in the South China Sea; and declare that the U.S. security guarantees would apply to islands rightly claimed or controlled by its allies.

At the same time, the U.S. should vigorously pursue Freedom of Navigation Operations in both air and sea to challenge China’s claims. “American pushback in the South China Sea is long overdue,” Tellis said. Many will agree. “Most nations in the Indo-Pacific region want the United States to remain the dominant Asian power and are willing to collaborate with Washington toward that end so long as they are assured that it will both protect them and behave responsibly.”

Both Friedberg and Tellis advised that the U.S. strongly support security cooperation among India, Japan and Australia and continue the transformation of U.S.-India relations undertaken by previous administrations. The importance of India goes beyond the “merely abstract geopolitical balancing” today and is an “operational imperative” because China’s capabilities and naval operations could one day interfere with U.S. naval movements from the Persian Gulf or Diego Garcia into the Pacific, according to Tellis.

It is urgent for the Trump administration to grasp the idea that China is coming from a position of strength to challenge American primacy in the Asia-Pacific; Russia, by contrast is playing a weak field successfully. Time to focus on the real challenge?

Seema Sirohi is a Washington-based analyst and a frequent contributor to Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. Seema is also on Twitter, and her handle is @seemasirohi

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