A lot has been said about the Trump administration’s approach to international relations. Few things have been more divisive among members of Congress, the media or even U.S. allies than America First rhetoric, NATO lashings, or withdrawals from pivotal agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the INF Treaty or the Iran deal, to name only a few. Everyone has an opinion.
But there is a tendency to think that such actions, and such reactions, happen in a box; that the world beyond our closest allies are just not paying terribly close attention. Certainly, they track shifts in policy to know how it might affect them, but are they picking through U.S. decision-making? Is it driving their own outlook? It’s so easy to assume that what happens here, whether it be on Capitol Hill or at the White House, is observed but not scrutinized.
So when our biggest adversary acknowledges in its own documents the very characteristics about American foreign policy today that are causing so much political friction at home, it can give you pause.
Our Asia reporter, Mike Yeo, reported about China’s latest defense whitepaper, released at the end of July. It warned of intensifying global competition as major powers readjust their security and military strategies to gain strategic advantage. A lot of the terminology rang familiar.
“The U.S. has adjusted its national security and defense strategies, and adopted unilateral policies,” the report stated. “It has provoked and intensified competition among major countries, significantly increased its defense expenditure, pushed for additional capacity in nuclear, outer space, cyber and missile defense, and undermined global strategic stability.”
Unilateral policies. Undermined global strategic stability. Provoked. Intensified. These are terms and phrases we’ve heard before.
Should we be surprised China is listening and watching? Of course not. But we should perhaps try to make sense of how our actions might be interpreted and how they influence the actions of others. Russia saw an advantage in Trump policies — a sense that he could divide NATO — and Moscow acted through election meddling. For China, current policies could be seen as provocation. Then what?
Consider China’s statements on U.S. actions in the region, which the report claims to be “adding complexity to regional security.” The deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system in South Korea has “severely undermined the regional strategic balance and the strategic security interests of regional countries,” the report reads.
And consider in fact how the THAAD fiasco unfolded. President Donald Trump pressured South Korea to permit the system to be deployed — a system that Beijing claimed could be used by the United States for spying. China retaliated with unofficial sanctions, which were lifted only after South Korea accepted military constraints.
Did we see this coming? Did South Korea? It’s unclear how seriously either country really considered China’s response. And that’s a problem.
Some of what China had to say in the report was rather satisfying. Consider its claim that “the U.S. is engaging in technological and institutional innovation in pursuit of absolute military superiority.” You might call that tangible evidence of progress in the Pentagon’s effort to gain some ground on China — a country that has dominated technological developments in recent years. It also does point to some examples where ties with the U.S. and regional players are strengthening — like in the case of Australia, which China recognizes is seeking a bigger role in security affairs.
Obviously, global perception shouldn’t define U.S. policy. But if we talk about how today’s rhetoric might be interpreted by allies, which we do, we certainly should consider how it might be interpreted by adversaries. Clearly, it’s their responsibility to read our actions and tactics and strategize accordingly — just as it is our responsibility to do the same of them.
So if the U.S. is going to shift its approach on a dime in how it cooperates with allies (which we have indeed done) and if investments are going to stray notably from the formula of administrations past (which they have begun to do), then part of the calculus better be how our actions and words might be read by those countries that pose the biggest threat.
That, I would argue, we have not done as effectively as we should.
Jill Aitoro is editor of Defense News. She is also executive editor of Sightline Media's Business-to-Government group, including Defense News, C4ISRNET, Federal Times and Fifth Domain. She brings over 15 years’ experience in editing and reporting on defense and federal programs, policy, procurement, and technology.