In March 2011, then-US president Barack Obama’s director of national intelligence, James Clapper, told the US Senate Intelligence Committee that, considering both its capabilities and intent, communist China presented “the greatest mortal threat” to the US, followed by Russia.
In the ensuing years, in the face of faltering US responses, China expanded and intensified its hostile actions against US interests and values. Consistent with US President Donald Trump’s call for a dramatic new approach, within months of taking office, his administration’s National Security Strategy said of China’s multidimensional assault: “China is using economic inducements and penalties, influence operations ... implied military threats, infrastructure investments and trade strategies [to] reinforce its geopolitical aspirations.”
Together with its National Defense Strategy, the administration laid its policy cards on the table: For all the strategic moderation, goodwill and cooperation that were supposed to follow decades of generous Western engagement, but did not, China (and Russia) must be treated henceforth as “strategic competitors” and “revisionist powers.”
Trump took on the heavy lifting on trade, the bounty from which enables all the other manifestations of increased Chinese power. After arduous negotiations for nearly two years, he and his trade team succeeded in achieving a “phase one” agreement that would begin to eliminate inequities that have given China a great advantage, such as its theft of intellectual property.
The promised structural changes to the Chinese economy would generate a loosening of the communist system, critical to building a healthier worldview in Beijing. The COVID-19 pandemic has put an abrupt stop to that dynamic.
While Trump focused on trade, and on cultivating what he hoped would be a productive personal relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), he enabled other officials to fashion the administration’s responses to the security and human rights dimensions of the relationship, tasks they took on with evident relish.
Taiwan long has been a strategic flashpoint in US-China relations. Encouraged by then-president-elect Trump’s defiant acceptance of a congratulatory call from President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), the US departments of state and defense, supported by the office of the national security adviser, instituted diplomatic and military initiatives that expanded Taiwan’s status as an important Indo-Pacific security and democratic partner.
Reversing decades of skittishness about sending the US Navy through the Taiwan Strait, the administration set in motion a program of routine transits and encouraged allied navies to do the same.
Beijing has asserted outlandish claims to sovereignty over the South China Sea, which a UN arbitral tribunal ruled unfounded under international law. China rejected the decision and continued expanding its activities in the region, including militarizing artificial islands, and has paid no price for its blatant breaches of international law and norms.
However, since 2017, the US Navy has challenged China’s maritime lawlessness by conducting regular freedom of navigation operations through the waters, which are more robust than the “innocent passages” to which it had been limited during the previous administration.
On democracy and human rights, the Trump administration has been on the right side of history and the right side of US values — not only on Taiwan, but also on Hong Kong, on religious and political freedom in China, and on the treatment of Tibetans and Uighurs.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and others have called the world’s attention to China’s obscene concentration camps in Xinjiang.
Given these and other examples of the Trump administration’s vigorous resistance to unacceptable Chinese communist behavior long tolerated by his predecessors, the allegations reported to be in former US national security adviser John Bolton’s book strike a dissonant note.
In leaked excerpts, Bolton accuses the president of sacrificing US national interests with China to benefit his own re-election prospects. He offers scant evidence to support the charge, and others who seemingly were in a position to know the facts dispute his version.
According to published accounts, Bolton says Trump urged Xi to have China buy more US agricultural products and that would help his re-election prospects. It is an allegation of a non-misdeed.
Outsiders did not have to be in the room to know that Xi cut off Chinese purchases of soybeans and wheat to retaliate against Trump’s tariffs — punishing farmers economically and Trump politically — or that Trump had been pressuring China publicly to reverse that action.
Restoring the purchases would be good for farmers, good for the US economy and retain Trump’s tariff leverage over China — all in the US national interest. That those positive results also would help Trump’s popularity and his re-election is obvious, unremarkable and consistent with the reality that successful presidents tend to get re-elected.
While it would be inappropriate and, depending on the circumstances, potentially illegal and even impeachable, to request any kind of foreign intervention in the US’ democratic process, the wheat and soybean saga, as reported, does not appear to rise to that level.
What would be more problematic are two other scenarios, which Bolton does not allege. The first would be if Trump asked China to do something that was not in the national interest. The other would be if he asked China to interfere directly in the US electoral process, either during the political campaign or in the election itself.
Underlying the inappropriateness of Trump seeking any kind of foreign participation in US national decisionmaking would have been a faulty assumption that China actually wants him re-elected.
That might have been Beijing’s thinking at the beginning of his term, when he seemed personally malleable, and before the extent of his delegation on security and human rights powers to committed subordinates was clear.
It surely has occurred to Xi and his colleagues that this administration is seriously bent on changing the game that has benefited China for so long, and that the return of more traditional foreign policy establishment figures would work to China’s advantage.
The second of Bolton’s reported allegations against Trump is more disturbing — that he approved of the Uighur detention camps. If true, that would make Trump potentially complicit in what might one day be proved to be China’s crimes against humanity and cultural genocide. At the least, it would be a clear betrayal of US values.
What makes the charge seem implausible is that it runs counter to the Trump administration’s declared policy of opposition to what China is doing to the Uighurs, as expressed in speeches by Pompeo and others.
Moreover, while the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2019 was wending its way through the US Congress, providing for serious sanctions against China’s human rights offenders, at no time did the Trump administration express any misgiving about the legislation, and Trump just this month signed it into law.
While more can and must be done to resist and push Beijing, the Trump team’s record on security and human rights vis-a-vis China to this point surpasses anything done in prior administrations.
Joseph Bosco served as China country director in the office of the US secretary of defense. He is a fellow at the Institute for Taiwan-American Studies and a member of the advisory committee of the Global Taiwan Institute.
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