US ‘strategic approach’ to China: compete, compel and challenge
9 Jun 2020|

Since US President Richard Nixon journeyed to Beijing in 1972, America’s grand strategy for China has been to engage and hedge.

Now the hedge is burnt and the engagement is off—no marriage of minds possible.

Washington proclaims its new grand strategy is to ‘compete’ against challenges from China and ‘compel’ Beijing to stop and reduce harmful actions.

Compel! Remember when the argument was whether the hedge policy was edging to containment? We have officially entered the era of compete and compel and challenge.

On 19 May, the White House sent to Congress a report titled ‘United States strategic approach to the People’s Republic of China’,  based on a fundamental re-evaluation of how the United States understands and responds to the leaders of the world’s most populous country and second largest national economy’.

The US predicts ‘long-term strategic competition between our two systems’, which is one of 19 instances of words built on the stem compet– (‘competition’, ‘competitors’, ‘competitive’, ‘compete’, ‘competing’) in the 16-page document.

Beijing’s challenge gets a dozen mentions, under headings for ‘economic challenges’, ‘challenges to our values’, and ‘security challenges’. Compel is used 11 times, to describe how Beijing applies pressure and how Washington will force China to change.

To take Washington at its words, the foreign policy blob has hardened and sharpened.

Many factors are at work in the hardening. Not least is the change wrought by Xi Jinping. The leader for life proclaims the values of his techno-authoritarian state with the Chinese Communist Party at its heart. The US has accepted that Xi means what he says and does what he means.

In 2015, Xi said he wanted a ‘new type of great power relations’. Five years on, he’s certainly got it.

The US National Security Council’s take on the strategy document is all about the ‘malign actions and policies’ of Xi and the party: ‘As demonstrated by the Chinese Communist Party’s … response to the pandemic, Americans have more reason than ever to understand the nature of the regime in Beijing and the threats it poses to American economic interests, security, and values.’

Much history flavours the power equation as the US muses into the mirror: glimpse the old missionary duty, glance again at ‘Who lost China?’, and ponder Kipling’s line, ‘A fool lies here who tried to hustle the East.’

The lament is that China has disappointed the US. China has not become what the US hoped for. To repurpose a bit of Beijing-speak, China has hurt the feelings of the Washington people.

The new strategy’s story is that the old engage-and-hedge approach was based on the ‘hope’ that the US could ‘spur fundamental economic and political opening’ and make China a responsible global player with a more open society.

Even if Donald Trump is swept away by the presidential election in November, the new grand strategy has taken root.

The paper proclaims that it’s based on the Trump administration’s vision of ‘principled realism’, but don’t waste time trying to relate the policy to The Donald’s realism (?) or principles (?!)

The importance of the new design is what it says on the box: this is a ‘whole-of-government’ document. Washington institutions are on board while Democrats and Republicans are in rare agreement.

The history narrative offered by a strategy paper from a Republican administration has plenty of Democrat adherents. It’s the narrative captured by the headline ‘How Washington got China wrong’ on the cover of Foreign Affairs in March 2018. That article was ‘The China reckoning: how Beijing defied American expectations’, authored by the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs in the Obama administration, Kurt Campbell, and Ely Ratner, the deputy national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden.

If Trump wins, we get more of this grand strategy. If Biden wins, it’s the same strategy with less Trump fireworks.

Describing the hardening of US views, a former deputy director of the CIA, John McLaughlin, comments: ‘There is today the closest thing I’ve seen to a consensus among scholars, policymakers and the public that China presents a serious threat coming at us fast.’

The strategy document accuses China of employing ‘intimidation and coercion’, attempting to reshape the international rules in its own image, and using ‘economic, political, and military power to compel acquiescence’.

One lonely, obligatory paragraph states that the contest can have limits:

Competition need not lead to confrontation or conflict. The United States has a deep and abiding respect for the Chinese people and enjoys longstanding ties to the country. We do not seek to contain China’s development, nor do we wish to disengage from the Chinese people. The United States expects to engage in fair competition with the PRC, whereby both of our nations, businesses, and individuals can enjoy security and prosperity.

In setting this balance, though, the US says it’ll have ‘a tolerance of greater bilateral friction’. Buckle in for shouting and plenty of bumps.

The US says its competitive approach has two objectives:

  • ‘improve the resiliency of our institutions, alliances, and partnerships to prevail against the challenges the PRC presents’
  • ‘compel Beijing to cease or reduce actions harmful to the United States’ vital, national interests and those of our allies and partners’.

The allies are named and praised—and lined up.

Australia makes four appearances: for its concept of the Indo-Pacific; the trade retaliation Beijing has directed at Oz; the way the CCP has attempted to influence the ‘discourse and behaviour’ of Oz politicians; and the Blue Dot Network launched by the US, Japan and Australia in November ‘to promote transparently-financed, high quality infrastructure through private sector-led development’ in the Indo-Pacific.

The tone is similar to Malcolm Turnbull’s account of the Oz wake-up moments about China. Turnbull called China a ‘bully’. The US offers a grand strategy to compete with, compel and challenge the bully.