On October 26, a week before the U.S. presidential election, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper will begin two days of high-level talks in Delhi. In person.
That shouldn’t be a surprise. If one puts politics aside, and connects the many and varied dots, one can see that the U.S. administration has a clear China strategy that is well thought out, multifaceted, and based on a deep understanding of China. It even has a name.
But before getting to the administration’s strategy, we need to understand what it is designed to counter — China’s concept of Comprehensive National Power (CNP).
Comprehensive National Power
Comprehensive National Power is a dominant framework in the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) view of the world. CCP think tanks and organizations use it to shape policies and gauge success.
The premise is that a nation’s Comprehensive National Power can be given a numerical value based on a specific but exceptionally wide range of factors, from military strength, to soft power, to access to natural resources, to advances in research and development, and much more.
Retired U.S. Coast Guard Captain Bernard Moreland — whose last posting was as U.S. Coast Guard liaison to Beijing — explains: “One of the important things to understand about CNP is that it is an objective metric. Beijing constantly calculates and recalculates China’s CNP relative to other nations the same way many of us watch our 401(k) grow. For us in the West, concepts like ‘national power’ are subjective vague concepts. The [Chinese Communist Party is] obsessed with engineering and calculating everything and believe that all issues can be reduced to numbers and algorithms. This is what they mean when they euphemistically refer to ‘scientific approaches.’”
The result is that any possible tactic – legal or otherwise – is considered fair game in serving the CCP’s goal of increasing China’s Comprehensive National Power. That includes using proxies and diversions to make counteractions more difficult.
In an October 21 article for Foreign Affairs, U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien detailed some of the many ways Beijing is trying to advance its CNP. They include intellectual property theft, co-opting international organization, using fishing boats for military action, hostage diplomacy, coercive economic policies, use and intimidation of Chinese nationals overseas to advance China’s interests, infiltrating and corrupting foreign education systems, debt traps, bribery, blurring the lines between state, commercial and military activities, and more. Much, much more.
Additionally, according to Comprehensive National Power logic, a country’s relative CNP can also increase if competitors drop down in the ranking. So, say the Chinese economy is going to be affected by an epidemic. It makes sense to not actively limit the disease’s spread so that it becomes a pandemic, and other countries are affected as well.
These actions – considered by many at least immoral if not illegal — are not aberrations. They are part of the CCP’s system. And for years the system has been working; China’s Comprehensive National Power has been increasing.
Comprehensive National Defense
This is where the Trump administration comes in. From early on, it was clear China was core concern. The administration’s December 2017 National Security Strategy called China a “revisionist power.” It explained that “China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor,” adding “A geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order is taking place.”
In June 2019, the Department of Defense published the “Indo-Pacific Strategy Report: Preparedness, Partnerships and Promoting a Networked Region.” It opened with “The Indo-Pacific is the Department of Defense’s priority theater.” The reason: “the People’s Republic of China, under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, seeks to reorder the region to its advantage by leveraging military modernization, influence operations, and predatory economics to coerce other nations.”
In November 2019, the Department of State published the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific: Advancing a Shared Vision” report, which wrote, “The People’s Republic of China (PRC) practices repression at home and abroad. Beijing is intolerant of dissent, aggressively controls media and civil society, and brutally suppresses ethnic and religious minorities. Such practices, which Beijing exports to other countries through its political and economic influence, undermine the conditions that have promoted stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific for decades.”
The Trump administration understands China. Still, as in many other countries, actions proposed by those concerned with defense, security, and intelligence were at times curtailed by those coming from the economic side, as has been seen by the slow movement on banning TikTok.
However, overall, beginning early in the term, and really gaining speed after COVID-19 muted some of the internal dissent that was still pushing for “engagement” with Beijing, the Trump administration set about countering China’s Comprehensive National Power with actions that incorporated reciprocity, whole-of-government efforts, economic levers, and more. It, in fact, put together elements of a Comprehensive National Defense.
While not perfect, or always consistent, many of the defensive actions were bold and smart – and many closed areas of access China never should have been allowed to develop in the first place.
According to Grant Newsham, retired U.S. Marine Colonel and former head of intelligence for Marine Forces Pacific:
The PRC’s trade cheating and intellectual property strong-arming and theft were well known for many years. Yet, the Trump administration was the first to take a systematic and forceful approach to the issue; pressuring China and trying to insert reciprocity into the trade relationship. This started shortly after Trump took office and despite resistance from Wall Street titans and certain business interests that were cozy with the PRC. Has Trump’s economic pushback on China been perfect? No. But he’s done more than anyone since China was allowed into WTO almost twenty years ago and allowed to play by its own rules.
In one specific example, U.S. funds invest billions in China, in spite of the financials of the companies being opaque, and the funds potentially going to Chinese military-linked companies actively working on technologies to undermine and attack the United States. After action by the president, the Thrift Savings Plan — which includes pensions of veterans — dropped a plan to invest tens of billions in China. This was the first time something like that happened.
There were myriad other firsts as well. Looking at CCP espionage, influence and interference activities in the U.S. alone, some of the administration’s publicly known countermeasures in just the last few months have been:
- Closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston, reportedly a node for such operations.
- Requiring senior PRC officials to obtain approval before visiting U.S. university campuses and meeting with local officials (this is reciprocity for Chinese regulations on U.S. officials).
- Pompeo’s designating the center that manages the Confucius Institutes as “an entity advancing Beijing’s global propaganda and malign influence,” requiring it to register as a foreign mission.
- Requiring multiple Chinese state-linked media organizations in the U.S. to register as “foreign missions” and share information on their U.S.-based employees with the government.
- Arrests of Chinese researchers who lied about their links to the Chinese military in order to gain access to U.S. research labs. Additionally over 1,000 Chinese students deemed to have military links had their student visas revoked and prospective students from China are now required to show that they don’t have links to the Chinese military.
- A Department of Justice crackdown, including arrests, of U.S.-based researchers illicitly participating in China’s “Talents” program that is “designed to attract, recruit and cultivate high-level scientific research” to advance Beijing’s CNP.
- Guidance for immigration law that now makes it nearly impossible for members of a Communist Party to become U.S. permanent residents or citizens.
- Requirements for U.S. think tanks to report if they have foreign funding.
Additionally, adds Newsham: “President Trump is also the first to have seriously tightened up on Chinese investment and acquisitions – to include of advanced technologies – in the USA. Trump has gone after Huawei and ZTE, major Chinese telecom companies that were both trade cheats, but also operate as extensions of Chinese intelligence surveillance.” Admittedly, there are still tensions within the administration, and hits and misses, so while ZTE issues remain to be fully addressed, the push against Huawei has been more effective.
Some close to the administration have even raised concerns about a potential GNC deal with Chinese-owned Harbin Pharmaceuticals as many of the company’s outlets (which require customers to provide substantial personal information) are near U.S. military bases and are popular with personnel. A Chinese parent company could gain access to a trove of sensitive information about military personal and activity via the purchase. They understand China so well, the administration knows that thanks to the mechanics of Comprehensive National Power, even the sale of a seemingly innocuous sports-oriented company is a national security concern.
There has been such widespread defensive action by this administration against China’s Comprehensive National Power it’s hard to keep track – especially given the obfuscating miasma of day-to-day political coverage. In case you missed them, other recent examples include: an Executive Order to secure U.S. supplies of critical minerals, an Executive Order on “Ensuring Essential Medicines, Medical Countermeasures, and Critical Inputs Are Made in the United States,” an export ban involving semiconductors, and, after China passed its National Security Law, stripping Hong Kong of its special economic status
The rational for this whole-of-government, indeed whole-of-nation, Comprehensive National Defense was made explicit in an unprecedented series of coordinated top-level speeches in the summer of 2020. On June 24, U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien made a speech about the implications of CCP ideology. On July 7, FBI Director Christopher Wray spoke about CCP espionage, influence, and interference operations. On July 16, Attorney General William Barr spoke about CCP economic influence and intimidation. And on July 23, Pompeo spoke about “Communist China and the Free World’s Future” at the Nixon library, driving home the point that the engagement approach launched by Nixon — while well meaning — has failed, and it was time for a new approach.
A major component of that new approach brings us to the possible name of the administration’s underlying China strategy. Comprehensive National Defense is not enough, as China thrives off pressuring and picking off countries one by one – as it has been trying to do recently with its economic pressure on Australia and hostage blackmail with Canada.
Comprehensive Multinational Defense
What is required is what Moreland has termed Comprehensive Multinational Defense (CMD).
Since those first documents, the Trump administration has emphasized the importance of working with allies and partners, and adapting and building structures to underpin those relationships, allowing them to survive changes in governments. It was one of the reasons for the May 2018 change of the name of U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM) to U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM), highlighting the importance of India to the region, and to U.S. strategy.
The work on relationship building in the Indo-Pacific has been consistent and extensive. The Quad (the United States, India, Japan, and Australia) was resurrected and recently held foreign minister-level meetings in Tokyo. It was important enough to be attended by Pompeo in person, even though the president had recently been diagnosed with COVID-19. And now, Australia has been added to the Malabar exercises, where the four militaries will work on interoperability in a public outing of the Quad that CCP strategic accountants must assume will take serious points off Beijing’s Comprehensive National Power numbers.
The United States has also backed the South China Sea claims of partners, increased engagement with ASEAN, upgraded the U.S.-Mekong Partnership, signed a defense cooperation deal with the Maldives (an important node in the Indian Ocean), sent a high level delegation to Taiwan, and more. Again, just in the last few months.
Apart from a range of high profile freedom of navigation operations, it has also been working on developing interoperability with partners. For example with India it held the first tri-service exercises, a U.S. Navy P-8 submarine-hunter was refueled at India’s Andaman and Nicobar islands, and an Indian warship was refueled by a U.S. Navy tanker in the Arabian Sea. This is apart from all the advances in information-sharing that are happening at a much quieter level.
And then there is the multi-billion dollar Pacific Deterrence Initiative wending its way through Congress with bipartisan support. The PDI is specifically designed to bolster the capabilities of and interoperability with allies and partners in the region. Additionally, there is substantial U.S. encouragement of like-minded countries in the region working together outside of the United States’ direct engagement, which has seen India and Japan, and India and Australia, sign logistics agreements, making operationalizing the Quad more seamless.
These are not small decisions and they don’t happen by accident. There have been lacunae, mistakes, and missteps, and there is a lot left to do, but if anyone doubts the seriousness with which the administration takes the building of a Comprehensive Multinational Defense, watch closely for big announcements about more foundational agreements during Pompeo and Esper’s visit to India. And, though it will likely be missed in the fog of election reporting, after India, Pompeo won’t head back to the United States – he will head to Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and Indonesia to shore up even more ties with Indo-Pacific partners.
The administration, and its partners, want to institutionalize as many elements of Comprehensive Multinational Defense as possible so that it can weather any changes in government in any of the partners. This is because they know it is the only strategy that can counter the Chinese Communist Party’s relentless, brutal, “scientific approach” to resurrecting and expanding the reach of the Middle Kingdom’s Comprehensive National Power.
The strategy is clear, and focused, and likely the only thing that will work. Beijing knows it, which is why it is doing all is can to drive wedges in core elements like the Quad. Indo-Pacific allies and partners know it as well, and many are doing what they can to join and lead. It is starting to work. The only question is, will it continue?
Cleo Paskal is a non-resident fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and associate fellow at Chatham House.