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News | Nov. 12, 2020

China – Next Steps

By James Przystup Strategic Insights

Upward steps on the Great Wall of China.
Next Steps
Upward steps on the Great Wall of China. License via Wikimedia Commons. See
Photo By: Kevin Jaako
VIRIN: 201112-D-PN951-001

The United States-China relationship has entered a new era. The bipartisan consensus that guided China policy, from the Nixon opening through visions of a “Responsible Stakeholder,” has eroded. The strategic rationale that China’s entry into the WTO would advance economic reform and, over time, political liberalization has failed to meet its promise. 

Secretary of State Pompeo’s remarks at the Nixon Library in July 2020 – that the “age of inevitability is over” – underscored this reality.[1] A new relationship is now in the process of being defined. It will be one in which decades of U.S. pre-eminence will be challenged.

The Secretary is right to have called out China for its violation of human rights, economic thievery, and disregard for international law, but this gets us no closer to a strategy for dealing with China. 

 His call for values-based alliance of democracies is an interesting idea, one consistent with traditional U.S. policy. However, this overlooks the reality that other states, even long-standing allies, have their own interests with respect to China, that proximity and geography may structure strategic outlook and shape strategic choice. 

Looking at China and East Asia, Bilahari Kausikan, former Permanent Secretary in Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has observed: “Contiguity and strategic weight will always give China significant influence in Southeast Asia and indeed East Asia as a whole. But significant influence is not exclusive influence or even dominant influence”[2]  

So, if we are to compete successfully with China for influence in Asia and across the globe, where to begin?   In short, back to basics – our alliances.

Secretary Pompeo, in his call for an alliance of democracies to confront China, appears to not fully appreciate that alliance management has not been a particularly strong suit of the Trump administration. In contrast to a long-standing tradition in Democratic and Republican governments alike – to define our alliances as based on shared values and interests – the Trump administration has adopted a transactional and idiosyncratic approach to alliance management that has raised concerns about U.S. leadership and commitment across the region.

The President is right to have called for increased support from our allies, but to cast requests for greater host nation support as payment for protection is not conducive to keeping long-standing friends or positively influencing those not so favorably inclined to the United States.

The President has also failed to pay sufficient attention to the diplomatic doctrine of “No Surprises.” The announcement of the Singapore Summit by South Korean officials at the White House blindsided Tokyo as did the post-Summit of statement cancelling U.S.-ROK exercises, which surprised Korean allies as well as numerous Pentagon and State Department officials. It is a similar story with the President’s repeated threats to withdrawal U.S. troops from Asia and Europe should the allies fail to pay up.[3]

Recognizing the concerns raised by the President’s approach to alliance management, the Congress in the 2018 Defense Authorization Act inserted language reaffirming the “unwavering” commitment of the United States to “treaty obligations and assurances including defense and extended deterrence to South, Korea, Japan and Australia.” [4] 

Two years later, Senators Jim Inhofe and Jack Reid, in the web journal War on the Rocks, wrote “Allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific are watching closely, and wondering whether they will be able to count on America…”  [5] 

For over seventy years the U.S. alliance structure, in the now Indo-Pacific region, has been the foundation of regional stability and security. As recognized by the Department of Defense, the Asian alliance structure represents “perhaps our nation’s most significant achievement since the end of the Second World War,” serving as “a foundation of regional stability and a means of promoting American influence on key Asian issues.” [6]

Accordingly, for the next national security team, the starting point of a comprehensive strategy toward China should be the reaffirmation that our alliances reflect shared values and common interests – that the U.S. commitment to our common defense is enduring. This would be playing to our residual strengths in a region that continues, in its strategic documents, to look to U.S. for leadership as the foundation of Indo-Pacific stability and security.[7]

At the same time, recognizing that our respective interests – those of the United States and our alliance partners in Asia and Europe toward China – are congruent but not identical, U.S. alliance policy should aim to address concerns and narrow differences, both at regional and global levels. This is the foundation of a strategic, alliance-based approach toward engaging China.

Responding successfully to the multi-faceted challenges posed by China – whether assertiveness in the South China Sea, predatory trade practices, or in international rules-making bodies – cannot be an America Alone project. Rather, it will require concerted U.S. engagement and involve international institutions – among them the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and the World Trade Organization – through which China-related issues can be addressed and concerted diplomacy marshalled to support western values and interests. Here again, our global alliances should be the starting point of strategy toward engaging China.

Notwithstanding the concerns of many, the United States and China are not entering a new Cold War. Unlike the Soviet Union, China cannot be isolated, contained or excluded from the regional and global orders.

Acknowledging this reality, U.S. strategy should aim to sustain the existing rules-based order that upholds western values, one that supports a balance of influence based on a balance of power. This alliance-based construct, over time, can tilt the playing field favorably toward the United States, its allies and strategic partners in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond.  

The challenge for the next administration will be, not to contain but to engage and compete with China, from a position of alliance-based strength.


[1] Secretary Michael R. Pompeo Remarks at the Richard Nixon Library and Museum, “Communist China and the Free World’s Future,” July 23, 2020,

[2] Bilahari Kausikan, “How to not to think about Geopolitics in East Asia,” The Straits Times, June 2, 2018 available at and “How to Think about Geopolitics in East Asia,” Keynote Address RAAF Air Power Conference, April 3, 2018.  The quotation used here is from the RAAF Air Power Conference.

[3] “Report: Japan shocked by  Trump’s unexpected Summit with Kim,”  The National Interest/Asia Times,, March 12 2018 available at and Eric Schmitt, “Pentagon and Seoul  Surprised by Trump Pledge to Halt Military Exercises,” The New York Times, June 12, 2018, available at

[4] National Defense Authorization Act 2018, available at Reflecting, in part allies’ concerns with the Trump administration, former Senior Australian defense official Peter Jennings, now Executive Director of the Australian Security Policy Institute, in advocating for increased defense spending argued that “It’s mostly luck that we haven’t been on the end of some Presidential verbal spray that could hugely undermine Australian confidence in the future of the alliance.”  See, Peter Jennings, “With Trump at large, Australia needs a Plan B for Defence,” July 21, 2018, available at  Also: See The Financial Times, “The Trump Factor: Asian allies question America’s reliability,” available at

[5] Senator Jim Inhofe and Senator Jack Reed, “The Pacific Deterrence Initiative: Peace Through Strength in the Indo-Pacific,” War on the Rocks, May 28, 2020, available at

[6] Department of Defense, “A Strategic Framework for the Asia-Pacific Rim, a report to Congress,” 1992 and Department of Defense, “United States Security Strategy for the Asia-Pacific region,” 1995.

[7] See Thomas F. Lynch III, ed., Strategic Assessment 2020: Into a New Era of Great Power Competition, National Defense University Press, Washington, D.C., 2020 – Part Three “Geostrategic Interactions in a New Era of Great Power Competition” and Part IV “Conclusions, Realities, Imperatives and Principles in a New Era of Great Power Competition.”                  

Dr. James J. Przystup is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Strategic Research, Institute for National Strategic Studies, at the National Defense University (NDU). The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not reflect the official policy of NDU, the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.