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Interpretation of the U.S. Strategic Approach to PRC

2020-06-08 15:22:17       source:NISCSS

June 8, 2020

One week ago, I wrote this very short introduction and commentary on the newly issued U.S White House document “The U.S. Strategic Approach To the People's Republic of China”. This short article surprisingly become super prevailing. It has been read more than 150,000 times only via the Wechat account of two prominent think tanks which I work with as nonresident research fellow. It also could have been read approximately 870,000 times according to the news reader app Today’s Headline (今日头条)which feed readers headlines through using AI  arithmetic to generate tailored news list for readers. These two numbers represent two circles of readers. My speculation is the former one is possibly professional readers who much or less doing work relating to academia or analyzing like policy analyst and journalists. The latter one could be regular readers who are interested in international issues and eager to know what is happening around the world.


These two numbers encourage me to think it might be worthy to translate it into English. Hopefully people interested in China-U.S. interaction might find something from it. It is slightly revised from its Chinese version to fit the expression habit of English.


On May 20th, the U.S. White House’s has published a document called “The U.S. Strategic Approach To the People's Republic of China” in accordance with the FY2019 National Defense Authorization Act, U.S.. Within this document, there are eight points which requires our attention.

This document claims to be a comprehensive assessment of how the United States perceives and will respond to China. Within this document, it is written that The U.S. has realized the long existence of strategic competition between the two countries. Through the use of the whole-of-government resources and by reverting back to “a principled realism”, the U.S. will continue to protect its interests and promote its influence.


The U.S. recognize the nature of Sino-American relations is a Great-Power Competition. From the beginning of this document through to the conclusion part, one message was repeatedly delivered: The reason why the United States thinks China is a peer competitor is that exactly what China asks for. The document expresses dissatisfaction with China self-proclaiming itself as a "developing country", and it deems that China is the world’s largest importer of high-tech products; with the latter’s GDP, defense investment and foreign investment being only second to that of America which makes China a threat to the interests of America and that of other countries. The tone in this document is quite sour.


The “results-oriented” principle will be used to evaluate the Sino-US relationship. This approach means the United States determined not to be tricked by the vague commitments of China. The U.S. shall require immediate reciprocal treatment from China, and will adjust its policy towards China based on China’s every move. There will be “no a particular end state for China”, Rather, the ultimate standard upon which the US. to evaluate bilateral relations will be how much it can contribute to the U.S. interests.


The U.S. is willing to pay the costs to impose pressure on China. The U.S. will adopt the “pressure exerting” principle to achieve its goals. Immediate outcome is required for deals. If China is unable to satisfy the American requirements, the U.S. shall not hesitate to put pressure to the country. The U.S. will also not hesitate to do anything within its means to attain its objectives.


The U.S. shall compete with China starting with four major areas. First, the US will try to pull China into the nuclear arms control negotiation game. Second, the U.S. will increase its investment in advanced technologies including the cyberspace and space capabilities. Third, the U.S. will push back China’s hegemonic assertions. The U.S. military will continue its freedom of navigation and some other activities in South China Sea and beyond, while speak up for and provide security assistance to its regional allies and partners. The fourth is to upgrade the alert level at China’s “Military-Civil fusion strategy”. The U.S. believes that China’s this strategy can allow the People’s Liberation Army to form close and “opaque” links with private companies and R&D departments. Therefore, there is a possibility that Americans might have unwittingly feeding dual-use technology into the PRC military research and development programs.


Although, it won’t soften its heart, the U.S. still will continue to engage with China in the management of crisis, according to the document. The document expresses that the U.S. does not rule out the idea of a free and open Indo-Pacific region with China. The U.S. will “continue to commit with China, while also keeping a constructive, results-oriented relations, which includes defense engagements and exchanges between both militaries for communicating strategic intent, preventing and managing crises, reducing the risk of escalation into conflict due to misjudgments and misunderstandings from both sides, and as well cooperate in areas of common interest. The U.S. military will contact and build an effective crisis communication mechanism with the PLA, including a channel for unexpected situations to prevent escalation.


The U.S. will keep “strong unofficial relations” with Taiwan, and continue its arms sales to the island. The document says that the U.S.-Taiwan relation is firstly based on “One-China” policy, then “the Taiwan Relations Act 1979", the three United States-PRC Joint Communiques the last. The document has defended the U.S. arms sales to Taiwan in 2019. It excuses itself of arms sales to Taiwan arguing that it is responsive to China’s building-up military advantage to Taiwan.


The U.S. refutes China’s claim that the U.S. has withdrawn from its strategy, abandoned its allies, and escaped from its commitment to international security. The U.S. reiterates that it will cooperate with its allies to resist the conflicting values of the Chinese.


“The U.S. Strategic Approach to the People's Republic of China” is a call to arms. The wording is very straightforward, and does not attempt to hide anything. A simple sum up would be, the U.S. will continue to interact with China but will guarantee it is in a clear-eyed manner. This document provides a comprehensive and systematic summary of Trump administration’s policy towards China in the last few years and in the incoming 4 years if he was reelected.


If Donald Trump is re-elected, we can then certainly see where Sino-American relations will be heading to. The main features or trends are as follows:


First, it is not necessary to to ponder the real perception the U.S. has of China any more. It is clear that China now is irreversibly considered as an peer competitor by the U.S.. China better be prepared for that. The initial action the U.S. might take could be reviewing international organizations, more specifically the international regulations whereby China enjoys benefits as a developing country, and it will also ask for adjustments article per article. Just as before, the U.S. has threatened to withdraw from the International Postal Union to modify its preferential terms for developing countries. The same phenomenon, “being in line with China”, can also be observed in the recent decision made by the U.S. government - the stoppage of fund to the World Health Organization. And the U.S. will select institutions and fields of greater interests “to turn China into a developed country”.


Second, the U.S. won’t hesitate to impose pressure on China. It even is prepared to pay some price for this. The price will be the precious lessons and experience learned and the relatively predictable framework of the bilateral relationship built up in the last 4 decades. The Trump administration will disregard the past relations between the both countries. Instead, this document, in two attempts, has made usage of the expression “clear-eyed manner”, emphasizing to need to see China clearly, and not to be “fooled” again by it. What this tells us is that this U.S. administration actually believes that it has suffered losses, and also that there is the urgent need to give up on past practices. All the bedrock principles in all fields of Sino-US relations will be withstanding continuous shocks in foreseeable future.


Third, when will the U.S. satisfied with the China? What will be the measure that the U.S. use to evaluate Sino-U.S. relationship? Based on what the document is emphasizing on, “result-oriented evaluation”, one thing can be sure is that the U.S. will focuses on short-term benefits, and it will possibly demand a clear outcome on every single matter. It will also become difficult to use long-term interests to restrain its short-term profit-making impulses.


Fourth, in the field of security and military, the document has employed the term “push back”, stressing out that the U.S. wants to push back the “hegemonic assertions” of China. This term is quite familiar, it reminds us of the Cold War period, and about the strategy employed by the Reagan Administration’s, which is to “roll back” the progress made by the Soviet Union in the 1970s. It is worth noting that the document quoted a sentence from President Reagan when addressing the issue of Taiwan, displaying the emulation of President Raegan’s policies by the Trump administration. The U.S. will make further use of resources to put China into the nuclear arms control negotiations of major powers (This is also a sign that the U.S. wants to put China in the category of developed country), and it will also continue to provoke China’s claims in the South China Sea. One important thing that deserves our attention, is the mention of the “Military-Civil Fusion (MCF)” strategy inside the document. And when put into the context of the U.S. strike and blockade against the Chinese high-tech, we get a hint that the U.S. will highly possibly take new actions in the field of military technology in the nearby future.


Fifth, there is a big portion of this document criticizing the domestic policy of China, which ranges from the institutional, the roadmap, to the competition of values. The importance of these aforementioned, will no longer be second to material benefits, and will re-gain eminence on the U.S. agenda. The document has listed 3 major areas where China has been challenging the U.S, and the order is as follows: Economic Challenge, Values Challenge and Security Challenge. It also tells us that the top priority goal of the U.S. is to protect the American people, homeland and way of life; second is to promote American prosperity; third is preservation of peace through strength; and fourth is to advance American influence. Another big portion of this document was dedicated to the discussion of China’s domestic political issues as well as ideological ones. It can be speculated that Trump, who was once characterized as a "businessman" who does not care about ideology, now is under the influence of his close supporters including Secretary of State Pompeo, Vice President Pence, and Deputy National Security Advisor Pottinger.


Sixth, reading between lines of this documents, we can infer that the "decoupling" and "new cold war" theories prevailed in the academic circles, perhaps, may not be able to summarize the status of the Sino-American relations. And it seems that the description and characterization of the future Sino-American relations requires new concepts, new idea, and new narratives.

Shi Xiaoqin is a Senior Fellow of the Center for World Navy Studies at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.

This article was first published in China’s South China Sea Research Institute on the 8th June 2020.