Foreign policy is about trade-offs. Nowhere is this more immediately apparent than in US policy toward China. On the one hand, China is emerging as the greatest competitor of the United States since the end of the Cold War—a competitor not just in economic terms, but increasingly in military, diplomatic, and even ideological terms. On the other hand, given its size and global importance, China is vital to achieving critical US foreign policy objectives—notably in North Korea but also on many important global issues.
That China is emerging as a major competitor of the United States, and of the West more generally, is no longer in doubt. As Jake Sullivan argued the other day when speaking at the Council, critical assumptions informing US-China policy over the past quarter century have not panned out.
We assumed that a China benefitting from the rules-based international order would become “a responsible stakeholder,” as Bob Zoellick argued in 2005. Yet, as its power grew, Beijing was interested in forging its own rules, ones more suited to its power and interest than the existing rules drawn up by the United States.
We also assumed that China was interested in regional stability and wanted a strong US military presence in the Asia Pacific to preserve that stability. But as Beijing’s power grew, so did its interest in extending its sphere of interest, and it is now actively competing for influence and control in the region.
Finally, we assumed that as China liberalized economically it would also liberalize politically. But the opposite has occurred. If anything, political power has become more centralized in the past few years—a reality underscored by President Xi Jinping’s elevation to president for life.
The most evident way in which the new competition is playing out is in the economic field, which has been a major concern of the Trump administration in recent months. While much of the president’s focus is on the ballooning bilateral trade deficit, there is a more widespread concern about China’s stealing of intellectual property, its forced sharing of technology by companies wishing to invest in China, and its extensive subsidization of new technology industries—all designed to make China economically more competitive, if not dominant.
Whatever the merits of the threatened trade war as a response to this new reality, it’s undoubtedly the case that China’s actions deserve an answer, and President Trump is surely right that this is long overdue.
At the same time, it is equally the case that the United States will not be able to achieve key foreign policy objectives without China’s active cooperation. The Trump administration’s maximum pressure strategy on North Korea is crucially dependent on Beijing’s willingness to cut off energy exports and other economic interactions with the Hermit Kingdom, since these account for 90 percent of North Korea’s foreign economic interactions. If China were to relax its sanctions, so too would the maximum pressure that helped bring Kim Jong-un to the negotiating table.
China is equally important in addressing another of the president’s foreign policy priorities: pressuring Iran. While many have focused on European reactions to Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran agreement, the reality is that China has played an equally important role. Even if European economic activity and investment in Iran ceases for fear of US sanctions, there is no guarantee that Beijing will follow suit. To the contrary, as Europe withdraws there is every reason to believe that China will reinvest in Iran with a vengeance—thus undermining the post-withdrawal strategy of the Trump administration.
All of which only underscores that foreign policy is, well, complicated. It involves trade-offs and weighing different costs and benefits. Tough rhetoric and demands for economic surrender like those handed over in Beijing a week ago may sound nice and even make one feel good. They’re unlikely to get what you want, and may even cost you a great deal in return.
Nick Miroff, Seung Min Kim, and Joshua Partlow / The Washington Post
Senior US diplomats warned the Trump administration through embassy cables that its move to expel 300,000 Central Americans and Haitians legally residing in the country under temporary protected status could actually trigger a new surge of illegal immigration. These warnings fell on deaf ears. The Post obtained a copy of a report by Senate Democrats that “revealed career diplomat’s strong opposition to terminating the immigrant’s provisional residency,” which then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson subsequently ignored and fell in line with other administration officials in pressuring the Department of Homeland Security to strip the protections. Last Friday, those measures went into effect, and when added with President Trump’s move to end protections for 690,000 “dreamers,” constitute his administration’s stamp of expiry on the residency of 1 million immigrants.
Daniel B. Shapiro / The Washington Post
Some have decried the Trump administration’s decision to move the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem as a coup de grâce for a two-state solution and lasting peace, but Shapiro assures his readers that the sky is not falling. He argues that the embassy’s presence in West Jerusalem reinforces the historic legitimacy of Jewish ties to the city while also opening the door for discussion about an eventual Palestinian capital, and US Embassy to Palestine, in East Jerusalem. Ultimately, the move changes surprisingly little, according to Shapiro, stating that “Israel’s own interests still require finding a path to end the conflict in two states, or at least to keep that prospect alive.”
Jane Perlez / The New York Times
Beijing has positioned itself as a critical player that can shape the outcome of the June 12 talks between President Trump and Kim Jong-un, Perlez writes. “[China’s] leverage over sanctions enforcement means its view on the main issues–the method and pace of denuclearization–will carry weight with both North Korea and the United States.” Perlez adds that China also has its eyes set on a longstanding security goal: the withdrawal of US troops from the Korean Peninsula. Furthermore, now that “North Korea is in play in a larger strategic contest of wills between Beijing and Washington, China is no longer so interested in squeezing the North.”
Marc Santora and Helene Bienvenu / The New York Times
Having secured a third consecutive term as prime minster of Hungary, Viktor Orban now has his sights set on bringing his message of illiberal democracy to the European Union. His latest battle with Brussels has been over what he believes is Hungary’s “moral duty” to refuse to take in refugees and asylum seekers as part of any European quota system, Santora and Bienvenu write. Orban has co-opted the term “Christian democracy,” which for years in Europe described moderately conservative parties with some left-leaning stances, and framed it as “a bulwark in a clash of civilizations, with Muslim migrants threatening Christianity and Christian values.” In the weeks following Orban’s reelection, thousands of Hungarian citizens took to the streets to protest his agenda, but the effort now wanes. “The recent crowds were smaller–police officers outnumbered demonstrators–and their chants less full-throated. A sense of urgency seemed to be replaced by resignation.”
David Brooks / The New York Times
“We’re all educated by our peers, and, over the years, a good portion of Donald Trump’s peers have been thugs,” Brooks writes. Putting forth as evidence the Trump administration’s nuclear talks with North Korea, trade talks with China, and hardline stance on Iran, Brooks wonders if that kind of upbringing provided, “a decent education for dealing with the sort of hopped-up mobsters running parts of the world today.” “Maybe Trump is right to intuit that the only right response to a monster is to enclose it,” Brooks continues. “Maybe he’s right that when you sense economic weakness in a potential threat, you hit it again.”
John McCain / The Wall Street Journal
In an excerpt from his new memoir, Senator McCain discusses his longstanding opposition to Russian president Vladimir Putin and the Senator’s own role in receiving “the Steele dossier” about President Trump. “Vladimir Putin is an evil man, and he is intent on evil deeds, which include the destruction of the liberal world order that the United States has led and that has brought more stability, prosperity and freedom to humankind than has ever existed in history,” McCain writes.
Yasha Mounk / Slate
At the start of World War II, the Soviet Union and the Third Reich signed a secret treaty of non-aggression that became infamously known as the “red-brown pact.” Mounk argues that a bizarre, postmodern variation of this alliance is taking place in Italy today as the Five Star Movement tries to build a coalition government with the League. “Both left-wing and right-wing enemies of liberal democracy are smelling blood in the water,” Mounk writes, “and they are not too picky about the people with whom they are to share the feast.” He goes on to explain that ideology is not the most defining characteristic of populism–what truly defines populists, “is a political style that combines fixation on odious villains and simple solutions with a deep disdain for the existing institutions of representative democracy.”
Gideon Rachman / The Financial Times
President Trump’s decision to pull out of the “painstakingly constructed” Iran deal raises the question of whether the US can run the world without allies, according to Rachman. By rejecting the entreaties of staunch allies such as France, Germany, and the UK, Trump provided the latest and most serious example of his administration’s aggressive unilateralism. Rachman says these policies are increasingly shifting the global narrative from “America First” to “America Alone.” American unilateralism will have direct consequences in the Middle East, Rachman writes. “It will also have indirect consequences for the wider world.”
Michael McFaul / The Washington Post
Former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul details how at the start of President Obama’s first term, when Dmitry Medvedev headed the Kremlin, the new administration believed in the possibility of a “reset” in relations with Moscow. However, in 2011, Putin announced he would run for president the following year, campaigning on antipathy toward the West and eschewing the “win-win approach” the US had developed with Medvedev. As soon as McFaul became ambassador in 2012, Moscow launched a full-scale disinformation campaign alleging that, under McFaul’s direction, the US was funding protests against Putin in an attempt to overthrow the Russian leader. “I had become ambassador to advance the reset, and instead I presided over its demise. But it was not because we changed our policy. It was because Putin changed Russia’s,” McFaul writes.