Even a cursory reading of the recently released US National Security Strategy (NSS) 2017 projects China as the principle economic and security threat for America. The economic threat from China and other non-democratic states is a major concern in the document. It discusses repressive regimes which have exploited international institutions, subsidised their industries, forced technology transfers, distorted markets and consequently threatened America’s economic security.
These states advocate free trade rhetoric and exploit its benefits in the international arena. However, in their domestic economy, they use non-tariff barriers, dumping, manipulative rules and regulations, and industrial subsidies to restrict market access. President Donald Trump himself, in the foreword, raises the issue of unfair trade practices of these regimes and holds them responsible for a majority of America’s economic woes.
Moreover, the NSS acknowledges that the last two decades of US policy of engaging these rival repressive regimes — in the belief that they would turn into benign actors and trustworthy partners — has come to naught. Instead, these rival states have emerged as strategic competitors and augmented their conventional and nuclear military capabilities. Further, they have become skilled at operating below the threshold of military conflict, through hostile actions cloaked in deniability. Here, it’s not difficult to correlate these NSS statements to China’s salami-slicing strategy or the use of naval militia to harass US naval operations in the Western Pacific.
Therefore, US intends to protect four vital national interests, namely, protection of American people, territory and way of life, promotion of American prosperity, rebuilding of the US military and advancement of American influence in multilateral institutions and regional security architectures.
The NSS further argues that China and Russia want to shape a world antithetical to US values and interests. China seeks to displace the US in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the influence of its state-driven economic model and reorder the region in its favour. The Chinese development of advanced weapons and capabilities could threaten America’s critical infrastructure and the command and control architecture. Moreover, China gathers and exploits data on an unrivalled scale and as it spreads its authoritarian system.
Chinese access to America’s innovation economy through its world-class universities and other access methods provide China leads in data science, encryption, autonomous technologies, gene editing, new materials, nanotechnologies, advanced computing technologies and artificial intelligence. These advanced technologies are critical to US economic growth and security. However, this annual haemorrhage of hundreds of billions worth of the US intellectual property has put the US National Security Industrial Base under threat. Therefore, the NSS is an overarching policy document of the Trump Administration to stop this haemorrhage and rebuild the US economic and military capabilities.
NSS met with Chinese disapproval
As expected, the NSS has come under extensive discussion in the Chinese discourse on global politics. The emergence of a ‘competitive’ world and the importance of America’s economic prosperity for military dominance are often highlighted. However, the Trump Administration’s ‘US first’ agenda is construed to be a protectionist measure, potentially creating fissures in its relationship with its allies. Chinese scholars emphasise that on many issues, such as defence expenditure, climate change, immigration and Iran, the US and its European allies differ in their approaches. In addition, the NSS' theme runs counter to Sino-US bilateral cooperation and trade interdependence. In reality, the idea of mutual containment or a zero-sum approach is neither feasible nor desirable.
Moreover, the Chinese government cannot help but notice that a total of 33 references to China were made in the NSS and most of them were negative in tone. The US designation of Chinese ambitions as one of the three main threats to its national security has rankled many among the Chinese establishment. The official spokesperson of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs termed it as malicious slander and distortion of China’s strategic intent.
In retrospect, Sino-US relations have changed in nature and character comprehensively over the last few decades. Although the Obama government did talk about the ‘pivot to Asia’, it still regarded China as a strategic partner. This diplomatic finesse was often used to hammer out solutions to intricate problems of bilateral disagreement. China believes that the Trump Administration is, in contrast, using the overt and forceful designation of China as a strategic competitor and a national security threat, to put pressure on Beijing and force it to toe the American line.
However, Trump’s toughness is based not on international laws but on America’s comprehensive strength and thus the NSS insists on maintaining US hegemony in the world. None of this is acceptable to Beijing or Moscow. In fact, the NSS sounds more belligerent in the South China Sea littorals than the countries inhabiting the region. China believes that it has been improving its relationship with its neighbours in the Western Pacific and it’s the US that has been playing the role of the instigator in the region.
Another line of Chinese experts argue that the NSS indicates that China hardliners in the Trump Cabinet are gaining currency. These hardliners have ushered in multiple policies such as investigation into China’s joint venture requirements, shareholding restrictions and technology transfer restrictions. The anti-dumping investigations on steel and aluminium have further aggravated concern in China that a trade war with the US might be in the offing.
Further, US investigations seem aimed at increasing its economic bargaining leverage with China. In contrast, China intends to replace the US as the technology innovation economy, especially in artificial intelligence, aerospace and advanced military technologies through its ‘Made in China-2025’ strategy. Therefore, the contradiction in Sino-US aspirations and the hardening of attitudes on both sides is inevitable. Although, the US is the strongest and largest economy, a trade and currency war with China will be a lose-lose situation that China would rather avoid.
NSS has given China the moral high ground
In sum, the US National Security Strategy is a reassertion of Trump’s campaign promises to act against China in economy and military domains. However, the international political system has undergone a structural transformation in the last decade. Although the US retains significant economic and military advantage, Chinese strength in both these domains is considerable as well. Moreover, China considers the Trump administration diplomatically immature in its first year of existence. Therefore, although Chinese official reactions give an appearance that China is rattled due to the NSS, that is in fact not the case.
Instead, the NSS has provided China a moral high ground from where it can berate the Trump administration on its derogatory actions that will harm the world peace and global trade. The economic strength and reasonable military capabilities have given China sufficient confidence to insist that a Group-2 mechanism of understanding between China and the US is necessary for international stability and growth. Moreover, this confidence leads China to uncover the hollowness of American attempts to contain China. Therefore, China will consider the US National Security Strategy, 2017 in the same fashion as the numerous human rights reports on China, published every year. As long as the language of these documents remains vague and devoid of any tactical actions, the Chinese government will not consider them worth the paper they are written on.
The author is an adjunct research fellow at Griffith University and specialises in Asian security and the Chinese foreign policy. He has previously worked as a consultant to the Indian Government and taught at the University of Queensland and Monash University.
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Updated Date: Dec 25, 2017 12:30:21 IST