By Austin Bay
The national security strategy President Donald Trump outlined in a December 18 speech has drawn searing criticism from China. That’s a good indication Trump is on the right track.
In his speech, the president declared that America will utilize all elements of national power (in appropriate combinations to defend its national interests.) The elements of power are diplomatic, information, military and economic power, which is what Trump meant by the phrase “we must compete with every instrument of our national power.”
Moreover, his administration will defend American interests by recognizing and engaging a 21st century geo-political reality that prior administrations either sought to finesse or attempted to ignore: great power rivalries that intensify current armed conflicts and seed future wars.
To successfully engage rival powers, America must rebuild and expand its military and economic powers and restore American confidence. I think assuring that the U.S. remains the world’s premier military and economic power is part of what Trump means when he says his guiding policy is “America First.”
China’s Communist leaders understand great power rivalry and they know it is a 21st century fact. In Beijing they play the combined instruments of national power game with vigor and long-term vision. The Boys in Beijing also put China First.
Which is why it’s a bit of a chuckle and an indication that Trump is on the track when Beijing’s official Xinhua news agency criticizes him for labeling China a rival power.
If the U.S.-China clash in the South China Sea isn’t a blatant example of a certain type of geo-political rivalry, what is it? China’s outrageous South China Sea maritime territorial claims directly challenge a major American economic and security interest: freedom of navigation. Beijing’s claims impede and potentially deny freedom of navigation in a sea space where each year, passing ships carry trade goods worth somewhere between four and five trillion dollars.
That’s a chunk of global GDP and no chuckling matter for a president dedicated to expanding the American economy. Trump views China’s sea grab as a long-term threat to America’s economy. And it is. He said America “is in the game and we’re going to win.”
China’s man-made islands are concrete (literally) manifestations of its expansionist power ambitions.
In the last 20 years, Chinese construction teams have turned ocean reefs into islands topped with runways for combat aircraft. The “create-an-island” program is also a slow invasion of maritime territory belonging to Southeast Asian nations, including U.S. allies like the Philippines. No wonder Xinhua bewailed a pledge Trump made in his speech: America will “re-energize” its alliances in Southeast Asia. Yes, diplomacy, and with traditional allies.
To the surprise of many, Trump’s “America First” national security program (again, as sketched) has a lot in common with national security strategic statements made by previous Republican administrations. Ronald Reagan’s comes to mind. I can see some Dwight Eisenhower. Trump’s insistence on economic vitality echoes elements of Ike’s October 1953 national security strategy as stated in NSC 162/2.
Trump’s “principled realism” (his name for this strategic approach) embraces “balance of power,” but not in a Cold War context. Rather, it seeks dynamic balance in a multi-polar and economically interdependent world. Interdependence means, everyone — friends, rivals, great powers, minor powers — must make economic and diplomatic deals (“opportunities for cooperation” he said). Trump, however, insists America will be the 21st century’s greatest great power, in all dimensions.
Based on this speech, Trump does not seek American domination of the planet — he rejects the role of global policemen. He does want to ensure America has maximum dealmaking (negotiating) leverage, whatever the issue, but particularly in the national security sphere.