Trump’s “America First” Security Strategy: Impact on China-us Relations

China International Studies (English) - - Contents - Teng Jianqun

The idea of “America First” is reflected throughout Trump’s first National Security Strategy. The report, which reveals the US perception of China as strategic competitor and return to great-power politics, will usher in a new era for bilateral relations that requires China’s well-prepared response.

On December 18, 2017, the Trump administration of the United States released its first National Security Strategy. The document, which according to US law is published by the President, outlines the administration’s policies with legislative implications. Because of its potentially global influence, the report tends to garner massive attention from policy experts the world over. Compared to what was published by his predecessors, Trump’s National Security Strategy differs in terms of both background and value. The idea of “America First” is reflected throughout the document, but feasible plans to fulfill the stated objectives are largely absent.

Trump’s Eagerness for “America First” Security Strategy

The US national security strategy is a combination of policies and principles in developing, employing and coordinating the integral parts of national power (diplomacy, economy, military, information, etc.), aimed at consolidating the US security. Its formulation is based on the assessment of both domestic and international environment. Formulated based on the US core interests and values with an explicit realist color, the newly released National Security Strategy has a clear brand of Trump. Four vital national interests, or “four pillars,” are listed in this strategy: protect the homeland, the American people, and the American way of life; promote American

prosperity; preserve peace through strength; and advance American influence. As stressed by Trump, the current world is getting increasingly complicated and filled with competition and crises. In such a world, the United States must play a leadership role on the international stage. In his opinion, Russia and China are seeking to challenge the United States, and the US engagement and partnership with these countries should only be based on the precondition that the relationships ensure rather than erode American interests. At the same time, the United States will tackle threats from North Korea and Iran, and fight against extremist forces in the Middle East.1

To demonstrate his uniqueness as a statesman and his achievements since assuming presidency, Trump wrote in the foreword of the document, “the United States faces an extraordinarily dangerous world, filled with a wide range of threats that have intensified in recent years.”2 What Trump considers as threats include the follows: (1) rogue regimes which are developing nuclear weapons capable of threatening the entire planet; (2) radical Islamist terrorist groups that are flourishing; (3) rival powers which are aggressively undermining American interests around the globe; (4) unfair trade practices that have weakened the economy and exported US jobs overseas; (5) unfair burden-sharing with allies; and (6) inadequate investment in domestic defense that has invited danger from those who wish to harm the United States. Domestically, porous borders, unenforced immigration laws, and criminal cartels have created a host of vulnerabilities to the US.

After nearly a year in office, Trump noted, “the whole world is lifted by America’s renewal and the reemergence of American leadership … the world knows that America is prosperous, America is secure, and America is strong.”3 Therefore, the United States will face up squarely to the challenges and dangers and bring about a better future.

According to Section 603 of the Goldwater-nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, “the President shall transmit to Congress each year a comprehensive report on the national security strategy of the United States.”4 However, as newly elected presidents tend to be overwhelmed with other priorities, and considering the strong policy-guiding significance of the first national security strategy report in each president’s term, over the years, US presidents have mostly postponed the publication of their first National Security Strategy report. For example, the first National Security Strategy of President Obama was released 16 months after his inauguration. President Trump published his National Security Strategy in such haste with the following considerations.

First, elaborating on the US security strategy. Without any history of public service or experience in the government, Trump’s national security policies are characterized as fragmented and reactive. Whether it is regional affairs or bilateral relations, Trump is accustomed to handling them at his own will without careful arrangement or long-term consideration. Thus, he is in urgent need of a document that would systematically and comprehensively articulate his strategic thinking on national security.

Second, touting his achievements. Both Trump himself and writers of the National Security Strategy have lavishly praised the achievements in the first year of the administration. Trump is good at boasting about himself, and according to this report, he is very satisfied with his performance in the first year, trying to depict himself as a savior of the United States.

Third, he is supported by a powerful national security team. Although Trump has failed to fill the vacancies of his administration even after one year in the White House, he has built a dominant team on national security with a strong military background, including White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, National Security Advisor H. R. Mcmaster, and Defense Secretary James Mattis. It can be said that Trump’s current foreign and security policies are completely subject to scrutiny by this team. On the contrary, the State Department, traditionally

the dominant agency responsible for US foreign affairs, has been marginalized, evidenced by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s resignation this past March.

Fourth, satisfying conservative forces. Trump has three strategically important electoral bases. The first is the Wall Street interest groups, who had constrained Trump from firing Tillerson sooner. The second is the military-industrial complex. Since taking office, Trump has signed a number of big arms deals with multiple countries. The third is the traditional “old white males.” During the election campaign, Trump has shown his adeptness in provoking the sensitivities of domestic politics to consolidate his electoral bases. The consideration of wooing the conservative forces is also one main reason behind his hasty release of the National Security Strategy report.

Substance of “America First” National Security Strategy

“America First,” the nationalistic slogan that helped rally a conservative base and secure Trump’s victory, is the ideological core of his National Security Strategy. Since declaring his bid for presidency, Trump has elaborated on the concept of “America First” on at least three separate occasions. The first time was in July 2016, when he spoke at the Republican National Convention. Trump pointed out that the United States was experiencing a moment of crisis. “At home, the attacks on our police, the terrorism in our cities, illegal immigration, poverty and debts are haunting the United States. Abroad, Iran, Syria, ISIS terrorist force, and unfair trade deals are threatening the fundamental interests of the United States,” he said, “The most important difference between our plan, and that of our opponents, is that our plan will put America First. Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo. As long as we are led by politicians who will not put America First, then we can be assured that other nations will not treat America with respect. This will all change in 2017. The American People will come first once again.”5 In the speech, Trump placed his focus on domestic issues, including domestic

politics, and other lynchpin issues like the failing economy and disregard for public safety. In hindsight, however, it seemed that all of this focus on domestic policies was more a result of Trump not yet being well prepared to deal with more complex international issues.

The second time Trump raised the issue of his “America First” policy was during his inauguration speech. He continued to list the pitfalls facing America: “For many decades, we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry, subsidized the armies of other countries, while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military. We’ve defended other nation’s borders while refusing to defend our own. And we’ve spent trillions and trillions of dollars overseas, while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay. We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength and confidence of our country have dissipated over the horizon. A new vision will govern our land, from this day forward, it’s going to be only America first. Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families … Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.”6

The National Security Strategy report further elaborates on Trump’s proposition of “America First.” The term “America First” appears in the report at least nine times. In the preamble of the document, Trump writes, “During my first year in office, you have witnessed my America First foreign policy in action. America is leading again on the world stage. We are not hiding from the challenges we face. We are confronting them head-on and pursuing opportunities to promote the security and prosperity of all Americans. This National Security Strategy puts America First.”7 For Trump, practicing the “America First” policy is the duty of his administration and the foundation for US leadership in the world. When talking about why this administration puts forward an “America First” national security strategy, the report emphasizes, “The competitions and rivalries facing the United States are not passing trends

or momentary problems. They are intertwined, long-term challenges that demand our sustained national attention and commitment.”8

Trump has, since the very beginning, expressed his extreme concern about the deterioration of both domestic and external environment facing the United States. What Trump said partly serves his election campaign, but it is no deliberate fabrication or ungrounded exaggeration. In recent years, the United States has come under increasing stress. Academic and political communities are anxious about the looming difficulties facing the country at home and abroad. Some US scholars even argued that the China-us relations have reached a “tipping point.”9 On the other hand, the mindset of the United States, with its reluctance to abandon the imperialistic mentality and the perception of evolving international order through a Cold-war and zero-sum lens, has lagged behind the development of the times.

The goal of putting forward an “America First” national security strategy is to reestablish the United States as the overarching global leader. “First,” in other words, is “sole.” Trump, well aware of the many challenges confronting the US, often exaggerates these challenges in his speeches and tweets. It is clear that he uses these scare tactics to make voters worry about the security and prosperity of the United States, thus allowing a businessman without any public service experience to lead them out of this mess. However, things do not go as well as what Trump wishes. The “America First” National Security Strategy lacks solid support. Despite Trump’s repeated emphasis on reinvigorating the fading US hegemony, the US national strength is no guarantee for realizing the objective.

First, the US owes a huge amount of debt. According to the US Department of the Treasury, by May 9, 2018, the US federal debt had exceeded $21 trillion.10 The adoption of Trump’s tax cut is expected

to increase the income of both residents and businesses while further expanding the federal deficit. As a result, the US government has to slash its spending in other areas, mostly in international aid, environmental protection and education. In addition, on December 24, 2017, the United States negotiated a reduction of over $285 million on the United Nations budget for the 2018-2019 fiscal year, after earlier announcement to reduce its financial commitment to UN peacekeeping missions. Aside from political considerations, the Trump administration intends to reduce government spending by dropping international contributions.

Second, withdrawal from multilateral agreements dampens the United States’ soft power. In the National Security Strategy report, the Trump administration particularly stresses the importance of “protectionism.” In the eyes of Trump, multilateral mechanisms or agreements have enmeshed the US with other countries, diluting the US superiority without concrete benefits. Since he took office, Trump has withdrawn from the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) and the Paris Agreement, started renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and unveiled plans to review other free trade agreements. Since the end of World War II, the United States has gained much say over Europe and the rest of the world through, among other instruments, the Marshall Plan, a seminal act which helped create a neoliberal world order with the US as its economic and political gatekeeper. The frequent withdrawals from international organizations or multilateral agreements have fundamentally shaken and damaged the country’s national reputation and soft power.

Third, ties between the US and its allies are affected. Unlike previous reports, Trump’s National Security Strategy only talks about protecting US citizens, its homeland and lifestyle, with no reference to protecting the US allies. This is not an inadvertent overlook, but reflects President Trump’s basic governing philosophy of shrinking the US obligations overseas. In his inaugural speech, Trump stated that the US would no longer defend other nation’s borders or subsidize the armies of other countries. The United States should only take care of its own security and prosperity. This has been

termed “Americanism,” not “globalization,” and will surely cause panic to many traditional US allies. In turn, the US allies will, in the future, no longer respond to US appeals as readily as before.

A Return to Great-power Politics?

The key concern of Trump’s National Security Strategy is the increasingly fierce competition among great powers, signaling that the United States will gear up for a return to great-power politics. It points out that China and Russia “want to shape a world antithetical to US values and interests” and are encroaching on the US sphere of influence. Since the end of the Cold War, successive US Presidents had once treated China as a competitor before changing their directions due to international events such as the September 11 terrorist attacks. However, given the current international environment and the US domestic politics, Trump’s renewed accusation of China as a “strategic competitor” indicates that the US would really return to greatpower politics.

In fact, the historical process of this policy return began at the end of the Cold War. The George H. W. Bush administration’s National Security Strategy report in 1990 read, “We are facing a strategic transformation born of the success of our postwar policies. Yet, such fundamental political change will likely be turbulent.”11 The United States had by then realized that the world structure was on the eve of a great change, and that it would be more difficult to cope with the situation. The 1991 National Security Strategy pointed out, “The bitter struggle that divided the world for over two generations has come to an end...we have entered a new era,”12 emphasizing that the US victory in the Cold war is the great success of the containment strategy. After dissolution of the Soviet Union, its once strong rival, the US

completely indulged itself in the victory and no longer conceived great-power politics as a starting point of foreign policy.

Under the Clinton administration, especially his first term, the US continued to follow Bush’s perceptions on national security. The 1994 National Security Strategy stated, “The end of the Cold War fundamentally changed America’s security imperatives ... The dangers we face today are more diverse. Ethnic conflict is spreading and rogue states pose a serious danger to regional stability in many corners of the globe. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction represents a major challenge to our security. Large scale environmental degradation, exacerbated by rapid population growth, threatens to undermine political stability in many countries and regions.”13 According to the Clinton administration, there were four major threats facing the US: the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, massive regional conflicts, the degradation of democracy in East Europe, and economic security. In this period, the primary concerns of the US were situated in certain regions, and based on this judgment, the US intended to simultaneously win major battles on both the Korean Peninsula and in the Middle East.

President Obama had sought to come back to great-power politics. In a Foreign Affairs essay before he was elected, he said, “We will compete with China in some areas and cooperate in others.”14 Soon after taking office, he made a phone call with then Chinese President Hu Jintao, stressing that “the US is willing to enhance cooperation with China and develop a more positive and constructive Us-china relations.”15 Having felt the pressure posed by the rise of China and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hardline politics, the US put forward the Asia-pacific Rebalance strategy in 2010, exploiting territorial and maritime disputes between China and its neighboring countries to create trouble for China and reinforce the US military deployment and economic arrangements in the Asia-pacific. In

2011, Obama ended the ten-year “war on terror,” withdrawing the ground forces from Iraq and significantly reducing the troops in Afghanistan. Instead of returning to the US, some of the withdrawn troops were deployed to the Asia-pacific region.

The Obama administration was originally poised to balance against China and Russia, but the Ukraine crisis and the rapid expansion of extremist forces in the Middle East quickly diverted the United States’ attention. The South China Sea situation was hyped up following the arbitration case unilaterally initiated by the Philippines, but relevant countries had failed to effectively contain China. Other US policies of utilizing its alliance network and frameworks such as the TPP to constrain China also ended up in failure.

For more than a decade, starting from the end of the Cold War to the September 11 terrorist attacks, the US experts and successive governments alike believed that the United States had become the only superpower in the world, but across the country, there was a huge divergence on how to maintain that status. Zbigniew Brzezinski, former US National Security Advisor and an expert on diplomacy and security affairs, once said, “The ultimate objective of American policy should be benign and visionary: to shape a truly cooperative global community, in keeping with longrange trends and with the fundamental interests of humankind. But in the meantime, it is imperative that no Eurasian challenger emerges, capable of dominating Eurasia and thus also of challenging America.”16 The neoconservative think tank Project for a New American Century (PNAC), now dissolved, had proposed a number of suggestions and plans since its establishment in 1997, stressing the importance to enhance the US global leadership, further advance military modernization, spread democratic values, meet the challenges from countries that are hostile to the US interests and values, promote political and economic liberalization around the world, and 16 Zbigniew Brzezinski, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives, Basic Books, 1997, p.xiv.

build a world order that accords with the US interests and norms.17

After dissolution of the Soviet Union, the United States has been looking for a new target. As Irving Kristol, an American journalist who played an influential role in US neo-conservatism, wrote in 1990 at the end of the Cold War, “That leaves us with a policy vacuum … we are now a world power that is no longer compelled by an adversary to be interested in every part of the globe. We are now free to pick and choose and assemble a coherent agenda. In short, we are now free to define our national interest, instead of having it defined for us.”18 And in 1993, the American political historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. noted, “Some people say that Americans need an enemy state to bring focus and continuity to foreign policy. The United States fought against Germany in two world wars, and then it was an enemy of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Who is designated as the next US enemy? Some people point to Japan; some point to Islamic fundamentalism; at a certain time, the US would undoubtedly announce the existence of other potential enemies.”19

In this context, Trump’s identification of China and Russia as “strategic competitors” demonstrates a US shift of focus from counter-terrorism and affairs in specific regions to great-power politics. Judging from the current situation, it seems very likely that this shift will materialize. First, the US no longer perceives terrorism as its key challenge. After the collapse of ISIS, counter-terrorism is no longer a pressing war for America. Second, Trump believes in great-power politics. Several times during his campaign and after taking office, Trump consulted with the former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger on how to properly deal with international relations. Emphasizing the significance of great-power relations, Dr. Kissinger stressed that the US should not confront China and Russia at 17 Tang Lan and Yu Xiaoqiu, “Introduction to the Project for the New American Century,” International

Data Information, No.6, 2002, pp.17-21.

18 Irving Kristol, “In Search of Our National Interest,” Wall Street Journal, June 7, 1990.

19 Quoted from Wang Jisi, “‘Containment’ or ‘Engagement’— the US Policy towards China after the Cold War,” International Studies, No.1, 1996, p.2.

the same time; instead, it needs to improve relations with Russia.20

Considering Trump’s practices over the past year since taking office, though faced with interference from domestic politics, the US President is going to put the game of great-power competition and cooperation on table once he consolidates his power.

Response to US Perception of China as Strategic Competitor

Trump’s National Security Strategy report indicated a great change in perception, labeling the two great powers of China and Russia as its key competitors. If the US returns to the traditional great-power politics, there would certainly be a shift in relations among China, the US and Russia. The China-us relations are now entering a new era and China needs to be well prepared to respond.

First of all, the old balance between China and the US has already broken or at least is being destabilized. The two countries hold different views on how to maintain and develop the established order in the Asiapacific region. While China’s comprehensive national power has increased dramatically since the reform and opening-up policy took effect nearly 40 years ago, the overall national strength of the US has declined sharply due to its successive involvement in wars, combined with deep-rooted domestic political and social divergences, as has its dominance over international affairs. The shift of power brings about changes in the two countries’ perceptions toward each other. China has become more confident when dealing with other countries, while the US increasingly exhibits anxiety when faced with the rise of emerging countries.

As the old balance of power is collapsing, there is a resultant recalibration of the China-us power structure. In this process, both sides seek to avoid a head-on collision. Under these circumstances, Obama

proposed the Asia-pacific Rebalancing strategy, attempting to stir up longheld disputes between China and its neighboring countries, and maintain the United States’ hegemonic position in the region. Meanwhile, China initiated a “new type of major-country relations” for the China-us bilateral relations.21

Frankly, faced with the power shift, the US has not yet been prepared to accommodate a rising China. It is hard for American politicians to adapt to the current change in the international power structure due to the conventional imperialist thinking. Nevertheless, as the bilateral balance of power has broken or at least is being upset, there would certainly be repositioning and adaptation of perception by both sides, a process that would require time and communication.

Second, in security and economic areas, both competition and cooperation between the two countries are on the rise, and the situation has become a new normal. The balance of power is reshaped because of deepening competition and cooperation. Given this, the two sides need to explore more approaches toward cooperation and avoid frictions in competition.

China and the US have established an unprecedented level of interdependence in terms of economy and trade. The trade scale in recent 40 years since the two countries established diplomatic relations has been increased by 232 times.22 In recent years, however, many from the US government, the academic community and even the business circles have become skeptical about the view that trade is the “ballast stone” for bilateral relations, believing that China cannot remove doubts from American society

only through buying more American goods. During Trump’s visit to China in November 2017, the US signed a trade deal with China worth $253.5 billion. From this deal we can see that trade between the two countries is broadening from consumption goods to production materials. In the past, trade between China and the US was quite limited, with China purchasing aircraft, soybeans, pork and cereals from the US, and exporting mostly shoes and clothes to American shopping malls. This $253.5-billion deal reveals that China-us trade cooperation is entering a new stage, which is represented by 37 projects in goods trade and mutual investment, covering areas of construction under the Belt and Road Initiative, as well as energy, chemical engineering, environmental protection, culture, pharmaceutical products and infrastructure. Breakthroughs were made in the financial area: for example, China Investment Corporation and Goldman Sachs signed a strategic agreement to establish a China-us industrial cooperation fund; limits were relieved on foreign holding of securities, fund, futures and insurance. Progress has also been made in energy cooperation. China National Energy Investment Group will invest $83.7 billion in Virginia’s shale gas, electricity and chemical engineering projects, an amount accounting for almost onethird of the total $253.5 billion deal.

While economic cooperation is continuously expanding, security competition between the two countries has intensified. Though the tension in the South China Sea has cooled down for now, the US would not give up on the so-called “freedom of navigation operations” which challenges China’s security interests in the region. Similarly, China will not stop legitimate actions to safeguard its sovereignty in the South China Sea. The competition will create a security dilemma for China and the US. In terms of military power, the Chinese army has made massive progress in the past 20 years. Due to the military reform started in September 2015, there has been a fundamental change not only in military administrative structure but also in combat readiness, military strategy and soldiers’ morale. On the other side, the US is intensifying the deployment of troops and advanced equipment, such the F-35 stealth fighter and the THAAD system, in western Pacific and encouraging

Japan and other regional allies to develop their own forces. Meanwhile, with the changing momentum on the Korean Peninsula, the US seeks to capitalize on the crisis to exert more control over Japan and South Korea.

To a large extent, the overt security competition between the two countries is the most likely source of future friction. Thus, in recent years, both sides have made efforts to avoid that consequence, such as the memorandum of understanding on the establishment of a mechanism for the notification of major military activities and confidence-building measures, a memorandum regarding rules of behavior for the safety of air and maritime encounters, and the joint staff dialogue mechanism. However, there is still a long way to go if both sides wish to avoid competition in the security field from escalating into friction or conflict.


The 2016 presidential election put Donald Trump, a real estate magnate, in the White House. This was actually not a “black swan” event, but a result of American society’s reflection on domestic and foreign policies since the end of the Cold War. Tired of elite “political correctness,” the Wall Street interest groups and the military-industrial complex need someone like Trump to lead the United States out of the current plight. Treating China as a “strategic competitor” indicates a change of the US national security strategy.

The US society’s disappointment is well embodied in the slogan “America First,” which Trump uses to play on the sensitivities of certain political groups and social communities. We can predict that achieving and maintaining “America First” is not likely to be accomplished in the three remaining years of Trump’s presidency. What is more, some of Trump’s policies can even be counterproductive to the “America First” national security strategy. In the short term, the situation may improve, but future development is still an open-ended story.

Returning to the great-power strategy and viewing China and Russia as “strategic competitors” marks a significant readjustment of American

external and security policies. Since the end of the Cold War, successive US presidents have always intended to come back to this traditional diplomatic security approach but were repeatedly interrupted. After completing the counter-terrorism war, Trump may really kick start the overall competition with China and Russia. A second Cold War is impossible but a “Warm War,” meaning a situation of both cooperation and competition among great powers, will continue. The result of competition depends not only on respective policy choices, but also on the rise of their overall national strength.

The US perception of China as a “strategic competitor” will surely bring frictions and conflicts to the bilateral relations, but China has to keep calm, searching out more opportunities for cooperation and make unremitting efforts to maintain stability of the relationship. China should put the new perception of the US in perspective and respond rationally to its return to great-power politics. As the US and China respectively represent the first and second largest economy in the world, the interaction between the two countries will not only influence the bilateral relations but also the overall regional and global situation.

China is now moving close to the center stage of international politics. It is an achievement of China’s own development, not something handed over by other countries. From a dialectical perspective, having a super competitor like the US is not necessarily a bad thing for China, which could actually spur a renewed drive for reform and eventually boost further development.

China should squarely face the changing US perception. The United States’ return to great-power politics means that it would always make decisions on its relations with China based on its own national interests. For China, its domestic issues should always be the first priority before trying to deal with the US, and the best way for bilateral co-existence remains the China-initiated new type of major-country relations, featuring no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation.

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