The Trump administration’s latest policy statement on China disappoints on prescription, but is a mostly thoughtful step forward on problem diagnosis. It’s also slightly baffling. Authored by the State Department’s Policy Planning staff, “The Elements of the China Challenge” surfaced two weeks after President Donald Trump’s failed bid for re-election.
Despite concerns about a still more hawkish turn intended to constrain the incoming Biden administration, this paper strikes a less uniformly disparaging tone on China and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) than previous Trump administration policy statements have done. Bureaucratically, that may seem unsurprising as a State Department rather than White House work product. Then again, this is Mike Pompeo’s State Department, which preserves little daylight between the secretary and the president.
Bureaucratic mysteries aside, what follows are a few observations on the document’s substantive hits and misses.
Most of the Trump administration’s significant policy pronouncements on China — whether in publications like the May 2020 “United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China” document, or in speeches by Vice President Mike Pence, Pompeo, and others — have read almost like criminal indictments. These have more or less equated the “China challenge” to a litany of misdeeds to which the United States must put a stop. The new paper contributes deeper and more fundamental insight on the nature of that challenge. Two contributions stand out.
First, the paper spotlights Chinese economic power as the source of its power in all other dimensions. And Beijing is credited — more explicitly than in other Trump administration official pronouncements — for China’s extraordinary accretion of economic strength. For instance, it states that “hundreds of millions have attained middle-class affluence under the CCP” and argues that “China primarily pursues the reconfiguration of world affairs through a kind and quantity of economic power of which the Soviets could only have dreamed.”
While the customary litany of abuses is again noted (mercantilism, IP theft, forced technology transfers, etc.), the document also acknowledges the impact of how the CCP has organized its society and managed its economy over the past four decades. It notes, for example, the striking effectiveness of China’s state capitalism (referencing “China’s powerful economic engine, combining choice with state command and control”); and the steadfastness of a succession of CCP leaders (“Xi can be assertive because of the fruits of his predecessors’ patience and determination”).
The document notes — with some admiration evident alongside its disapproval — that the CCP’s “discipline and ruthlessness have enabled it to marshal vast resources and patiently pursue the production of wealth at home and the acquisition of power and influence abroad.” This a more balanced, multidimensional view than the oft-heard charge that the CCP cares about little more than its self-perpetuation in power. It also observes that the CCP has cultivated a patriotic ethos that all Chinese citizens are expected to sacrifice for their country (quoting Xi Jinping: “One can do well only when one’s country and nation do well”). And the paper is decidedly agnostic on whether the CCP will or won’t succeed in retaining popular legitimacy over the long term, parting from the oft-voiced dogma that CCP authoritarianism can’t long survive the rise and aspirations of its massive middle-class population.
Secondly, the paper contributes thoughtfully to the ongoing debate on the significance of ideology — rather than realpolitik — on the Chinese side of the Sino-American rivalry. This is undoubtedly the most extended treatment of ideology’s role in contemporary China’s conduct to be found in an official Trump administration statement. The paper is worth a read for this alone. It stakes out a position that pairs Marxism-Leninism with more traditional Chinese nationalism as a significant driver of Chinese behavior, both at home and in the international arena.
The paper also has some shortcomings, diagnostically and especially prescriptively.
The document states — with seeming certainty — that China “plans to dominate world affairs.” That may well be the case, or it may exaggerate Beijing’s ambitions. In a thoughtful analytical piece like this one — as opposed to campaign rhetoric — it probably ought to have been presented as one plausible inference of several. That said, this is a potential aspiration for which U.S. strategists ought to prepare, though with flexibility and an open mind. There is, after all, some daylight between a drive for regional — or even global — primacy and global domination.
Moreover, the paper’s generally useful discussion of ideology goes too far in asserting that “the communism that the CCP professes is… a theory of a globe-spanning universal society, the ultimate goal of which is to bring about a socialist international order.” This depends, of course, on what one means by “socialist international order.” But it seems very unlikely that Beijing has any desire to export its socialism to the United States and Western democracies. The CCP may well prefer a set of competitors wedded to what it views as far less effective ways of organizing their societies.
While unusually willing to give some credit where due to Beijing, as noted, the paper occasionally reverts to panning what is probably worthy of grudging admiration. This includes the paper’s criticisms of China’s audacious “Made in China 2025” agenda and its Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure scheme. It doesn’t become a superpower to chastise a rival for seeking strategic advantage by anticipating the future, nor by trading services and capital for commercial and geopolitical influence. The focus should instead be on outcompeting that rival.
The memo’s prescriptive section is its weakest aspect. In fairness, the paper’s title suggests that its core intent was problem diagnosis, not prescription. That said, the authors opted to include a prescriptive section — albeit one framed very modestly as “ten tasks” — so this can’t be ignored.
The first of these prescribed tasks is to “secure freedom at home.” This is to be accomplished by “preserv[ing] the constitutional order,” “foster[ing] a growing economy based on a free market,” and “cultivat[ing] a vibrant civil society.” This prescription does not seem especially well aligned with the diagnosis that preceded it. America’s constitutional order may be under pressure, but it is hard to pin that affliction on China. And the brief discussion of the economy reads more like campaign platitude than even the beginning of a strategic, tailored response to the challenge of the Chinese juggernaut — a response that might require some deviation from the dogma of free markets.
Another enumerated task calls for the U.S. to “[look] for opportunities to cooperate with Beijing…, [constrain] and [deter] the PRC when circumstances require, and [support] those in China who seek freedom.” On the heels of a lengthy (and generally insightful) diagnostic discussion, this prescription — speaking to the core of China strategy — seems surprisingly unhelpful. Strategy is about prioritizing and making hard choices, but little guidance on that score was provided here.
A final critique, across both the diagnostic and prescriptive sections: the paper probably overstates the extent to which the U.S. aims above all to promote a “free, open, rules-based order.” Relative to China, has that been Washington’s primary goal under President Trump? Should it be, under President Biden? As noted above, the paper deserves credit for highlighting Chinese growing power — especially economic power — as the center of gravity of the challenge China presents to the U.S. Would a rejuvenated rules-based order — if one could be enacted overnight — solve that problem? Interestingly, the term “containment” is nowhere to be found in the document. But the preservation of a favorable power balance, at least via coalition, would seem to be an essential part of a response to the problem identified.
What is perhaps most refreshing about the Policy Planning document is its effort to more objectively assess China’s competitive strengths — and those of the CCP — instead of simply impugning China and its leadership. One hopes, perhaps in the classified version of this paper, that there will be a still more clear-eyed assessment of the weaknesses (as well as the strengths) that the U.S. brings to its competition with China. U.S. strategy must start from an unflinching reckoning with the country’s economic challenges, political dysfunction, institutional decay, and social division — one that sets aside the ideological blinders that too often constrain our search for better paths forward.
Andy Zelleke, Ph.D., is a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School.