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Competitors at Last?

China ponders the harsh tone toward the country in the Trump administration’s first national security strategy report

By NewsChina Updated Feb.1

After Donald Trump announced he would run for the US presidency in 2016, his attacks on China came often and hard. But after he assumed power Trump’s policy toward China took a more inscrutable turn. 
Despite criticism over various issues including trade, currency and North Korea, the atmosphere of Trump’s high-profile visit to China in early November 2017 appeared friendly and amicable. Less than two months later, however, the Trump administration once again opened verbal fire on China. On December 18, the Trump administration released its National Security Strategy (NSS) report, which explicitly identified China and Russia as competitors that have emerged to “challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity.” 

‘Revisionist’ Power 

Labeled a “revisionist” power, China, along with Russia, tops the list of challenges faced by the US outlined in the report, followed by the “rogue states” of Iran and North Korea, and “transnational threat organizations,” such as terrorist groups.
“China and Russia want to shape a world antithetical to US values and interests,” says the report. While China and Russia are often bundled together, China is also frequently singled out. In total, China is mentioned 23 times – nearly double compared to the last NSS report released by the Obama administration and more than Russia’s 17 times.
Unlike the previous national security report issued by the Obama administration, which launched the Rebalance to the Asia-Pacific strategy to curb China’s regional influence but still called China a “strategic partner,” the Trump-era report perceives China as a global threat, with China’s presence in almost all major regions under attack. 
In Asia, for example, the report accuses China of seeking to displace the US in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its State-driven economic model, and rearrange the region in its favour. In Europe, China is said to have gained “a strategic foothold” by “expanding its unfair trade practices and investment in key industries, sensitive technologies, and infrastructure.”
In Africa, the report accuses China of undermining long-term development by “corrupting elites, dominating extractive industries, and locking countries into unsustainable and opaque debts and commitments.” In Latin America, China is blamed for seeking to “pull the region into its orbit through state-led investments and loans.”
The report also implicitly criticizes China’s Belt and Road Initiative, an ambitious global strategy that aims to increase connectivity across regions through massive infrastructure building. Without mentioning the initiative directly, the report frequently warns against China’s infrastructure building. “China’s infrastructure investments and trade strategies reinforce its geopolitical aspirations,” says the report. 
In general, as well as labeling China as a strategic rival, the Trump administration’s first national security strategy report presents a much harder and more hawkish tone towards China than the previous US leadership. 

Chinese Reactions 

Beijing was swift to react. In a regular press conference held on December 19, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying disputed the accusations, describing the report’s stance on China as conveying “outdated notions such as the Cold War mentality and zero-sum game.” Hua called for the US to “stop intentionally distorting China’s strategic intentions,” which she said would “only harm itself or others.” 

The Chinese Embassy in the US released a statement in response to the report on December 19, warning that “preaching rivalry and confrontation goes against the global trend and will lead to failure.”
On the same day, the Global Times, a Party-run newspaper known for its nationalist stance, published an editorial titled “US security strategy blinded by arrogance, false beliefs.” “This report is a manifestation of the Trump administration’s tough posture, which counts on US power instead of international rules. It showcases Washington’s indisputable insistence on its global hegemony. Neither Beijing nor Moscow will buy it,” said the editorial. 
In an opinion piece also published by the Global Times, Li Haidong, a professor from the Institute of International Relations at China Foreign Affairs University argued that under Trump’s anti-globalization stance and “America First” principle, the US is more of a revisionist power which is attempting to reverse the trend of globalization and strive to marginalize and weaken the UN-centered international order. 
But by and large, China’s reaction appears to have been rather muted, taking a non-confrontational tone. In official responses, China has continued to emphasize the importance of cooperation between the two countries and suggest that there will be no change in Chinese policy toward the US. Hua Chunying, for example, reiterated China’s stance that “cooperation is the only right path for China and the US.” The Chinese Embassy’s statement adopted a similar tone. “For China and the United States, cooperation leads to win-win outcomes, while confrontation can only lead to a lose-lose situation. This is a simple truth that will not change, regardless of the views of any individual,” it said in a statement.  

Competition of Models? 

While the US national security strategy report serves as a framework or a guideline for how the US should approach the world, it remains unclear how the document will translate into specific policy and actions. But with the newly hawkish stance toward China, many Chinese experts are concerned that the document may indicate that the fundamentals of the bilateral relationship between China and the US are changing.
Jin Canrong, a well-known professor of international relations at the Renmin University of China, argued that as the report puts threats posed by China and Russia ahead of those posed by terrorism, it has reversed the trend under the Obama administration of putting its focus beyond traditional international politics in non-conventional fields such as climate change, cyber security and terrorism. Climate change, for example, is entirely missing from the report. 
As the document criticized past administrations since the end of the Cold War for their “strategic complacency,” the US’s strategic focus is expected to return to the traditional geopolitical competition between nations, with China topping the list. 
According to Jin, the report’s rhetoric on China, including its frequent references to China’s “State-driven economic model,” notes on China’s “authoritarian system,” and accusations that China seeks to build a world order “antithetical” to US values suggests that the US may start to perceive its rivalry with China as a competition of models. 
Since China normalized its diplomatic relationship with the US and launched its Reform and Opening-up policy under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, China adopted a “laying low” and “no banner bearing” policy, which Jin said has helped reduce frictions between the two countries.
But in the past couple of years, China has become increasingly confident under the leadership of President Xi Jinping and started to frequently mention the idea of the “China Model” of development. During the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China last year, Xi declared that the “China Model” offered a “brand new option” for countries that “want to develop economically while preserving their independence.” Xi also said that China can now offer “Chinese wisdom” and the “Chinese approach” to address the problems facing humanity. 
Jin argues that China’s assertion of a “China Model” may constitute a tipping-point in Washington’s policy towards China, leading the US to perceive China’s threat as a global and systemic one, rather than a regional or a one-dimensional one. 
In dealing with the perceived threat posed by China, the report particularly highlights the strategic importance of the “Indo-Pacific” region. Although the Indo-Pacific concept has been around for some years, past administrations have largely referred to the region as the “Asia-Pacific.” It was not until the Trump administration that the Indo-Pacific concept was adopted in official US communications, which indicates a major shift of policy in the region. For example, the report explicitly says that the US will “expand our defense and security cooperation with India” and seek to “increase quadrilateral cooperation with Japan, Australia and India,” a group that is seen as aiming to contain China.  

Taiwan Issue 

Besides the overall rivalry between the US and China, the Taiwan issue mentioned briefly in the report has received particular attention from Chinese experts. 
The issue, which is perhaps the most sensitive for China, caused a stir when Trump answered a phone call from Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen shortly after coming to office in early 2017, leading some to suspect that he may overturn the One-China policy. 

Although Trump later reaffirmed the One-China policy, Trump’s decision to sell arms to Taiwan in early 2017, and the US Congress passing the Defense Authorization Act (DAA) – which authorizes US Navy warships to conduct port calls in Taiwan – has not taken any heat out of the issue. 
After Beijing warned that the US legislation represents “provocation against China’s sovereignty, national unity and security interests,” and will lead to “severe consequences,” Li Kexin, a senior diplomat at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, went further on December 8, 2017 to warn that the day a US warship makes a port call in Taiwan will be the day the Chinese military launches the “forceful unification” of Taiwan. 
In the report, the Trump administration says that the US will maintain its strong ties with Taiwan “in accordance with our ‘One-China’ policy,” and will continue to “provide for Taiwan’s legitimate defense needs and deter coercion” under the US Taiwan Relations Act. 
While the report’s rhetoric on Taiwan appears to be consistent with Washington’s traditional policy regarding the issue, the fact that the report is the first of its kind to mention the issue has triggered concern in China. 
For many Chinese experts, the unpredictable style of the Trump administration makes it hard to assess the impact of the national security report on various issues of the bilateral relationship. Professor Shi Yinhong, director of the Center for American Studies at the Renmin University of China, argued that Trump has adopted an “opportunistic” principle in his foreign policy that has prevented him from launching any concrete or cohesive strategic plans.
But it may be the unpredictable nature of the Trump administration that poses the greatest threat to the stability of the bilateral relationship between China and the US. 

On December 28, 2017, only 10 days after the release of the report, Trump threatened in an interview with The New York Times that he might act on his numerous threats against China if China did not cooperate with the US on the North Korea issue. 
Analysts have long discussed the possibility of such a conflict between China and the US, with some believing a trade war has already started. The irony is that China-US economic cooperation has long been considered the bedrock of the bilateral relationship. The spread of disputes into the field of trade and commerce threatens to severely test this.