Donald Trump’s strategy was never about alienating the world – it was always about containing China
Josef Gregory Mahoney says that with the unveiling of the Indo-Pacific Economic Vision, the apparent resolution of the trade dispute with the EU and the cosying up to Russia, it is now clear that the US president has been working towards a strategy of turning other countries against Beijing
With the announcement of a US-led “Indo-Pacific Economic Vision” to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative, on top of reports that the European Union and the United States have agreed to avert a trade war and work together instead to discipline China, the foreign policy of Donald Trump appears to be coming into focus: repositioning to contain China economically and diplomatically.
Just a week ago it seemed Trump’s foreign policies, while detrimental to China, would create opportunities for Beijing to improve relations with others feeling Washington’s ire. Trump’s excoriations of Nato and abandonment of the Paris climate accord and Trans-Pacific Partnership pointed towards isolationism, opening the possibility of a new world order.
While the US appears to have yielded the South China Sea to China for the moment, an effective grand strategy may revitalise the Indo-Pacific scheme of drawing Japan, India and Australia into a China-containment alliance, especially when coupled with the Indo-Pacific Economic Vision.
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In the meantime, Trump has indicated willingness to go all-in on the trade war against China as Beijing walks a delicate tightrope of major economic restructuring while trying to maintain growth rates above 6 per cent and slowly deleverage toxic debt and debt dependency.
Instead of isolating the US or serving as Vladimir Putin’s handmaid, Trump’s primary objective is to isolate China.
Indeed, the US has taken an ambiguous position on Russia’s annexation of Crimea, indicating a measured appeasement. Trump may count on exchanging that ambiguity, plus Syria, for a hard line on Iran, with the calculus that Russian interests are better served in Syria while Chinese interests will suffer with Tehran’s.
Russia would no doubt be happy to be the sole kingmaker in Syria, and would also like to see the Belt and Road Initiative stumble, as it represents a play for Chinese hegemony over Central Asia.
Then again, with a meeting between Trump and Iran President Hassan Rowhani being floated, we may see Iran flip like North Korea, again at China’s expense. European leaders are ready for a deal with Syria to resolve the refugee crisis, and they would love a new one with Iran.
Beijing appears to have been caught flat-footed. Finger-pointing is rife now, with some blaming propagandists in the State Information Office for agitating the US with too much braggadocio, while others quietly blame President Xi Jinping for failing to form a close personal relationship with Trump or too thinly disguising what many consider an obvious contempt for America.
In fact, the misread seems bigger than just trade, and this new strategy probably had its starting point in Trump’s camp long before he was elected.
The major schools of thought on China in the US have largely been split between two groups: one viewing Beijing as a threat and the other predicting China’s collapse.
The former has dominated among analysts and scholars linked to the American military establishment, while the latter has enjoyed prominence in intelligence communities. Trump’s penchant for generals and hawks in his administration, as well as his public attacks on the intelligence communities, indicates his preference for the threat thesis.
The two most recent containment strategies failed. The first became apparent in 1999 and bridged 9/11, which the US used as a pretext for building bases in Central Asia.
At its height, the US effectively encircled China with assets in South Korea, Japan, Southeast Asia and by water. By some estimates, these developments put American conventional weapons within a 20-minute striking distance of any target, including sensitive defence and space industries in China’s west.
China responded with diplomatic efforts with Russia through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, creating powerful incentives for Central Asian countries to expel US bases, and has backstopped these with the belt and road scheme and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
China also embarked on major military reforms and investments in asymmetric weapons, also producing a leaner, more technologically advanced armed forces, capable of striking American carrier groups and thwarting first-strike aircraft.
This first approach then gave way to the second, looking for new alliances in the so-called “pivot” towards Asia, including sowing strife between China and her neighbours and, by some accounts, emphasising American submarines deployed off China’s coast, capable of monitoring naval activity and imposing a blockade at a moment’s notice.
These developments, coupled with unchecked nuclear subs under the Arctic ice, formed a strategy China has struggled to vitiate, leading to its adventures in the South China Sea and elsewhere.
Nevertheless, this second American strategy was also doomed to fail because a nuclear attack or even blockade is unconscionable, and because China’s economic growth, the Belt and Road Initiative, energy deals with Moscow and Tehran and its defensive developments in the water were likely to produce meaningful breakout points.
A new, bolder containment strategy is by no means assured success. In addition to the burden of potentially making China enemy No 1, Trump faces a number of problems, including questionable American growth rates, given front-loaded tax breaks and massive pre-trade war orders.
Furthermore, while many in the world are unready for a Chinese superpower, there is also global fatigue with American imperialism, hegemony and double standards.
Besides, Trump continues to face serious legal threats and a mobilising opposition determined to derail him at midterm elections, defeat him the next time he faces voters or, if possible, impeach him.
Nevertheless, with or without Trump, this strategy is likely to outlast him if it appears effective. Talk in Beijing is already about how to shift tactics and make at least temporary concessions without losing face. Trump will make both hard, if not impossible.
Josef Gregory Mahoney is a professor of politics and director of the International Centre of Advanced Political Studies at East China Normal University in Shanghai