While the country’s attention was fixed on the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation these past weeks, a major foreign policy shift has been underway: the Trump administration has finally decided to start treating China like the adversary it is.
It might not make headlines the way a culture war-infused Supreme Court nomination spectacle does these days, but President Trump’s dramatic policy shift on China could mark the beginning of a kind of second Cold War, with far-reaching implications for national security, U.S. foreign policy, and international trade.
Last week in a speech at the Hudson Institute, Vice President Mike Pence issued a scathing indictment of Beijing’s “debt diplomacy” through the Belt and Road initiative, its aggressive military expansion in the South China Sea, human rights abuses, and growing efforts to meddle in the U.S. midterm elections.
“What the Russians are doing pales in comparison to what China is doing across this country,” Pence said. “And the American people deserve to know it.” He went on to accuse China of economic espionage and a “whole-of-government approach” to “advance its influence and benefit its interests in the United States.”
Then on Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had a tense public exchange with China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, who accused the Trump administration of “ceaselessly elevating” tensions over trade, Taiwan, and a host of other things. Pompeo, sitting across the table from Wang, said the United States has a “fundamental disagreement” with Beijing on those issues, and left the country without holding a customary press conference with Wang or meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Trouble Is Brewing In The South China Sea
All of this comes on the heels of a shocking report from Bloomberg Businessweek about an aggressive Chinese espionage effort to target the Pentagon and dozens of U.S. companies by slipping microchips into the motherboards of high-end computer servers. According to the report, these microchips “allowed the attackers to create a stealth doorway into any network that included the altered machines.” Apple and Amazon deny that it happened at all, as does the Chinese government, yet the vulnerabilities of the global technology supply chain are as undeniable as China’s manifest efforts to exploit them.
Then there are Beijing’s ongoing efforts to forcibly claim the entire South China Sea. A Chinese destroyer nearly collided with a U.S. warship last week after conducting a series of “increasingly aggressive maneuvers” and warning the U.S. ship to leave the area. The Chinese ship came within 45 yards of the USS Decatur, a guided-missile destroyer, which took evasive action to avoid a collision. (For those of you without a sense of maritime distances or the size the ships involved, 45 yards is dangerously close).
The encounter took place near the Spratly Islands, which China claims as its own territory and where it has for years been turning reefs and rocks into man-made islands that now include military airstrips, radar domes, deep-water ports, and advanced missile systems—all designed to establish de facto sovereignty over the world’s busiest international shipping lanes and secure unrestricted access to the Pacific.
The Trump administration has adopted a policy of sending more U.S. warships into the region on freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs), as have France and the United Kingdom, with the result that tensions are building in the South China Sea and forcing smaller neighboring countries to choose sides. It is not too much to say that China is waging a kind of quiet war against the United States in that corner of the world, and we simply haven’t yet recognized it as such.
China Is Not Our Partner
These are not the actions of an ally, or even a neutral trade partner. The Trump administration is correct to conclude that China’s behavior can only be understood as dangerous and adversarial—and it is appropriate, as Pence explained last week, to respond with a far more robust policy aimed at curbing Chinese irredentism and bolstering vulnerable U.S. allies in the region.
The Obama administration promised a “pivot to Asia” as a major focus of U.S. foreign policy, but the pivot never really materialized. Instead, we saw increasing boldness from Beijing throughout the Obama presidency, most notably in the 2015 Office of Personnel Management hack that compromised sensitive information about more than 22 million federal employees and contractors. That same year, the health insurer Anthem was hacked, exposing data on some 80 million current and former customers, with all signs pointing to Chinese actors.
For all the focus on Russia’s malign activities in the 2016 election, nothing Moscow has done comes close to the cyberattacks the United States has endured at Beijing’s hands, or the industrial espionage carried out against American industries, or the foreign influence operations at U.S. colleges and universities.
Indeed, it is hard to overstate the degree to which Beijing sees itself in direct competition with the United States—on trade, global and regional influence, military power—and is willing to push the envelope in its pursuit of great power status in a multipolar world. It’s willing, in fact, to penetrate the C.I.A.’s spying operations inside China and systematically dismantle operations there, killing more than a dozen U.S. sources there between 2010 and 2012.
It is past time for the United States to stop pretending China isn’t an adversary. Although Pence’s speech lacked a comprehensive strategic vision for how the Trump administration will push back against China while strengthening U.S. alliances and trade relations in the Asia Pacific, it at least signaled to the world that Trump is indeed pivoting to Asia—with the clear-eyed goal of containing Beijing.