The Trump Administration’s China Strategy May Become Its Biggest Legacy

The Trump Administration’s China Strategy May Become Its Biggest Legacy

The newly visible balancing China approach could be the Trump administration’s legacy foreign policy move, if the president can stay away from needless interventionism in the next two years.
Sumantra Maitra
By

As the Me Too movement continues to eat itself up and Democratic politicians find new frontiers against patriarchy, out in the real world, geopolitics continue to dominate. The Trump administration consolidated its balancing China policy in Asia, as highlighted in the latest National Security Strategy, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary James Mattis’s visit to India for the first-ever Indo-U.S. bilateral and defense talks.

This as China is rapidly modernizing its navy and testing hypersonic missiles that could be used as an anti-satellite weapon. It’s not the only big foreign policy move this week. Washington cancelled $350 million in subsidies for Palestine and withheld $300 million worth of military assistance to Pakistan, enormous amounts of wasted taxpayer money that could ideally be redirected for domestic purposes.

All of those moves fade in comparison to a visible balancing China approach, which could be the legacy foreign policy move of the Trump administration, if the president can stay away from needless interventionism in the next two years. Predictably, this hasn’t gotten much mention in the news media, which remains busy with toxic domestic politics.

Regardless, this forms a significant and possibly defining development of the Trump administration’s policy regarding China. China is, per academic consensus, the chief potential peer rival and adversary great power for the United States.

China, the Adversarial Great Peer Rival

In the recent months, rapid military modernization has been visible in Asia. China launched its first homemade aircraft carrier for sea trials, making it the second in the world in relative power after the United States, a position unlikely to go away. The Chinese security strategy under President Xi Jinping charts a future where China will have at least five carrier battle groups, second only to 11 American groups, with Britain and India a distant third and fourth with two planned battle groups each.

Why does China need so many aircraft carriers? Simple: China is emulating the American Great White Fleet strategy and Teddy Roosevelt’s navy modernization programs. It is determined to push the United States away from China’s backyard, or at least make the cost of intervention and allied support exorbitantly higher.

The purpose is to deter American cavalry from supporting small countries like Taiwan if China decides to invade. After all, will the United States commit to save Taiwan and face the prospect of an open-ended war with China?

While the overall U.S. Navy superiority remains overwhelming, China will traditionally have the regional theatre advantage, and in the event of a conflict potentially convert domestic bases for naval operations. China has also started pouring money into artificial intelligence research and satellite destruction capabilities, to knock out Western commerce and communication if push comes to shove, as Western academia remains blissfully enmeshed in gender studies.

Finally, in a significant development, China is for the first time joining Russia in the biggest ever military exercise since 1981, with more than 300,000 troops practicing what military strategists call “interoperability,” or the capability to work jointly in an operation.

The Trump administration has, for all its contradiction, remained steadfast on balancing China, an idea reflected in its National Security Strategy that heralded the era of renewed great power rivalry. China’s indigenously built aircraft carrier program boosted this hard power angle.

In international politics, great intentions reach calamitous ruins if not backed by hard power, and ultimately peace is guaranteed not by benevolent institutions and actors, but by the strength of arms and deterrence. Put simply, might is right, and strength guarantees peace. In that way, the ongoing Sino-American naval rivalry is not dissimilar to the Anglo-German naval race from just a century back, and is definitely symptomatic of the region’s changing maritime dynamics.

After all, taking up the mantle of globalization and free trade means defending it in far-flung regions, including Africa and Latin America, and nothing proves the determination of that task than a few hundred yards of floating sovereignty, packed and armed to the teeth. Reflecting that, the Trump administration has continued the Freedom of Navigation operations in the South China Sea. The Chinese navy were also disinvited from the Pacific Rim naval exercises.

The Ongoing Indo-American Balancing Act

It is in this context that India’s role as a regional ally becomes important. There’s a distinct principle of foreign policy evident in times of epochal change. Smaller powers and regional powers hedge their bets, and countries that face major regional rivals bandwagon with a superpower. In bandwagoning, a small power aligns with another power that it previously considered a source of threat for some reason.

India, as the only democracy and regional power with a volatile land border with China, faces a dilemma. On one hand, China is considered in India’s strategic circles as the biggest threat. On the other hand, unlike other democracies and American allies like Australia and Japan, the risk of an Indian war with China is real. India is also ambivalent about an active military alliance and instead chooses to align with the United States based on interests. That is a long-term tradition in Indian neutrality.

What are the common interests in Indo-American relations with regards to China? The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is instinctively aligned with the Trump administration in aversion to Islamism and jihadism, Pakistani hypocrisy, and Chinese military expansionism. He’s also skeptical of unilateral trade embargoes and visa problems for Indian techies working in the United States, as well as the Trump administration’s opposition to Shiite Iran, which New Delhi considers a regional counterbalance to Sunni Pakistan.

Indian armed forces are also continuously training with their American counterparts, and the Indian navy is in talks with the U.S. Navy about joint patrolling and operations. Just ahead of the Indo-American summit, with Mattis and Pompeo visiting New Delhi, India showed interest in information-sharing in communication and security, and cleared the acquisition for 24 U.S. Navy choppers in a deal worth $1.8 billion.

Overall, therefore, India remains the United States’ most active military partner if Washington DC is determined to counter China. To make China understand American resolve, short of an actual war, the best policy remains arming Chinese rivals to the teeth.

That doesn’t mean there’s a possibility of a full-scale war, as that remains highly unlikely. But there are conflicts other than a full-scale war and war isn’t everything in international relations. America needs allies in Asia, and democracies, even if they are flawed, are better than authoritarian revanchist powers with enormous trade influence trying to coerce the American economy and military out of an entire continent.

The latest push for more robust strategic alignments between Asian democracies and the United States is, therefore, a welcome even though underreported development. The Indo-U.S. partnership remains key to balancing China. In a saner, unipolar time, these questions wouldn’t even be raised or pondered. But these are not sane times.

Sumantra Maitra is a doctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham, UK. His research is in great power-politics and neorealism. He also regularly writes for The National Interest and Quillette Magazine, and edits Bombs and Dollars blog. You can find him on Twitter @MrMaitra.

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