Secretary Pompeo’s First China Briefing

Donald Trump’s national security documents frame China as the United States’ greatest long-term threat. This declaration caps a historic shift in America’s strategic disposition toward China. From the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1979, until roughly 2016, when it became clear Chinese Communist Party Secretary Xi Jinping would double down on Leninism, Washington cooperated and competed with Beijing, emphasizing cooperation when possible. There is now a bipartisan consensus in the U.S. that relations with China are fundamentally competitive, and that the geostrategic, economic, and ideological stakes of competition are high. When Chinese leaders reached the same conclusion is hard to pin down, but Beijing agrees with Washington about the rivalrous nature of the relationship, “win-win” and “community of common destiny” pieties notwithstanding.

The Trump administration sees the China challenge as dire and comprehensive. When rolling out the National Defense Strategy in January, 2018, Secretary of Defense James Mattis implied Western Civilization hung in the balance: “. . . we must be the best if the values that grew out of the Enlightenment are to survive.” In his State of the Union address later that month, Trump called China a “horrible danger” that “challenge[s] our interests, our economy, and our values.” And in February testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, FBI director Christopher Wray said, “One of the things we’re trying to do is view the China threat as not just a whole-of-government threat, but a whole-of-society threat.”

Having made its strategic disposition clear, the Trump administration has staffed up to implement it by selecting Pompeo as the new Secretary of State and John Bolton as National Security Advisor. If the U.S. is serious about the gravity of the challenge China poses—and if a skeptical world is to take the U.S. seriously—Secretary Pompeo’s primary task will be meeting the challenge through diplomacy. The new president’s foreign policy team may wish it could opt out of diplomacy, but it can’t. Diplomacy is how nations speak to each other. It’s what secretaries of state are for.

Managing relations with an ambitious peer competitor would tax Washington even if it were functioning normally, but it isn’t. Responding to China’s rise will require that Secretary Mike Pompeo resurrect American diplomacy, articulate a rationale for American global action, and build international support for American positions while the U.S. is in the midst of a political crisis and while his own party embraces belligerent isolationism as a means to American greatness. The job is made harder because the China challenge, though broadly recognized, is not urgent. For most Americans, the danger is more theoretical than felt, making it unlikely that they will mobilize to meet it or be willing to pay high costs to defend against Chinese encroachments. Recent polls indicate Americans are acclimating to Chinese power even as their policymakers grow more alarmed.

Despite these obstacles, Secretary Pompeo can avoid some of his predecessors’ errors and begin to stabilize the relationship if he bases China strategy in four concepts:

An American Vision: China’s rapid rise is premised on and validates the proposition that the world can change quickly. In contrast, U.S. politicians tend to aim for stasis and to cling to America’s past achievements—standard thinking for a status-quo power. The new Secretary of State should rise above the status quo and ground China policy in a vision for continued American success in a dynamic world. The vision must be founded in American traditions and in a realistic assessment of its strengths and limitations, a hallmark of which is recognizing that Americans can’t afford everything they desire. The Secretary must then convince the president to embrace his vision, design a strategy to achieve it, and equip the State Department to implement the strategy.

A Global Relationship: The U.S. and China are competing to shape values and norms, and to lead markets and international systems, on every continent, in space, and in cyberspace. China is already the world’s top trading nation and the leading investor in Africa. It is making infrastructure loans across Africa, Eurasia, and Latin America and hopes that a worldwide propaganda campaign will make ardent admirers of its many debtors. In Europe, China is splitting East from West through its 16+1 mechanism, a platform for economic and institutional cooperation between Central and Eastern European countries and the People’s Republic. In North America, China stands ready to offer Canada and Mexico better deals than it otherwise would if the U.S. alienates its neighbors through NAFTA re-negotiations.

If the U.S. does not match Chinese activity globally, a growing number of developing nations will regulate their economies, media, and civil society on Beijing’s terms. The Secretary should understand that an effective China policy requires vigorous diplomacy and investment worldwide, which in turn requires that other nations believe American policies serve their own interests, as well as those of the U.S. The Secretary should therefore encourage the President to temper his strident nationalism. Many countries are alienated by this administration’s insistence that “the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage” and by threats to withdraw aid and take revenge on nations that don’t support American positions at the United Nations. Threatening countries that might otherwise support the U.S. in its competition with China undermines efforts to confront what the President claims is the greatest threat to American security.

Two Nations in Transition: The story of modern China is one of continual change. Because American power and American examples influence the direction of China’s evolution, it is essential to remain engaged and to work with China when possible. Engagement needs to be more responsive to strategic concerns than it was in the past, but it must remain a pillar of U.S. China policy.

Engagement is a two-way street. Because of the depth and complexity of the China challenge, and the degree to which the two nations are intertwined, Americans should expect that choices they make about China will change the U.S. in turn. Taking the China challenge too lightly and overemphasizing engagement can weaken American institutions and communities by exposing them to the influence of the Party. On the other hand, responding to Beijing’s “comprehensive national power” by adopting the Party’s “whole-of-society” approach to national security could isolate the U.S. and turn it into a garrison state.

Beyond Rivalry: The Trump administration is right to see China as the United States’ primary geostrategic challenge. Beijing wants to establish a Sino-centric Asia, which would threaten American alliances. In the shorter term, it seeks to replace the U.S. as the primary actor in the Western Pacific, a region where Beijing flouts international law and threatens to seize Taiwan by force. Its exploitation of American openness (and American naïveté) and WTO loopholes have harmed American workers and corporations. And as its global power spreads through trade and investment, so do its illiberal attitudes toward the press, non-governmental organizations, and political transparency.

The China challenge is unprecedented and severe, but it shouldn’t be overstated. China can’t get everything it wants, after all, any more than the U.S. can. And the issue is not what each side wants, but what it will settle for, and whether those settlements can form a new foundation for stable relations between two superpowers.

The incoming Secretary of State should therefore look beyond rivalry, even as he prepares for it, and begin to define the main features of sustainable, non-adversarial relations between a powerful U.S. and a powerful China. What might that look like? It isn’t sufficient to label China a threat, raise alarms about China’s influence, and arm up. The U.S. has made clear its attitude toward China, but has not defined its aims. What changes or accommodations would be good enough to allow the U.S. and China to pursue competition and engagement with a higher degree of trust? That is what is missing from Trump administration warnings about the China peril: because we have not done the hard work of imagining the acceptable, we are defaulting to familiar patterns of escalation. China makes the same mistake, with Chinese characteristics, of course.

The new Secretary of State’s China docket includes an economic relationship in chaos, a crisis on the Korean peninsula, growing concern about Beijing’s influence on American universities, and possible friction in the Taiwan Strait. An adequate China will not emerge from grappling with these issues week-by-week. A risen China is an epochal development that must be grasped with broad principles like those outlined above before getting down to cases.

Still, the cases keep piling up. It’s time for a real strategy.