Trump’s Bilateral Approach Favors China


Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

Ash Carter was U.S. defense secretary from 2015 to 2017. He spoke with The WorldPost’s editor in chief, Nathan Gardels, about the Trump administration’s new China policy, North Korea and the pending U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

WorldPost: Recently, Vice President Pence laid out what is so far the most comprehensive strategy toward China. It essentially entails an effort to isolate and contain China to thwart its rise both as a military and technological power.

Others have called for an “alliance of democracies” against China. That idea is also implicit in renaming the American strategic orientation from the “Asia Pacific” to “Indo-Pacific.”

Where do you agree and where do you depart from the Trump administration’s approach?

Ash Carter: There’s much in the vice president’s speech that I said as secretary of defense, but there are some omissions and differences as well. I said many times: We don’t have a China policy, we have an Asia policy. That policy has been structured for 70 years on a bipartisan basis as a principled, inclusive network — a mesh of political, diplomatic, economic and military relationships with many nations, rather than one-on-one bilateral relationships only. This American-led system gave a region with no NATO the peace to create the Asian miracle.

This network promotes principles of international behavior: on “peaceful resolution of disputes and opposition” to coercion; on freedom of commerce, including freedom to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows — a phrase Pence also uses; on shared responsibility among the network’s participants; and on free and fair trade.

To give up the network approach would be to cede the battlefield to China, which excels at coercive us-versus-them relationships where it can apply the unified political, economic and military tools of a Communist dictatorship. So pure bilateralism disfavors U.S. interests.

There must be elements of self-protective containment of Chinese coercion in U.S. policy, but overall containment like our Cold War approach to the U.S.S.R. is not practical with America’s largest trading partner. We didn’t trade with the U.S.S.R. Moreover, no Asian countries will join a U.S. or Chinese bloc even if we declared one. We are strengthened, however, as China self-isolates.

Finally, I was pleased to see the Trump administration support my focus as secretary of defense on long-term strategic competition with revisionist powers, including China, as part of the “rebalance,” and the technology challenges that come with it: cyber, artificial intelligence, space and electronic warfare.

WorldPost: Top Chinese officials such as Fu Ying, the vice chair of the National People’s Congress, also call for an “inclusive” security arrangement instead of an “exclusive” American led alliance in the region rooted in the post-WWII era. They also say the “freedom of navigation” is a non-issue since, in reality, China is a trading nation that would commit economic suicide if it interfered with free access to the high seas. How do what you mean by “inclusive” and what Chinese officials mean as “inclusive” differ?

Carter: The difference is that the United States behaves inclusively and China doesn’t. China singles out companies and countries for individual coercion. For 70 years, the United States included all of Asia in a system of peace that Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, India — and yes, China, too — have relied on to rise and prosper.

Freedom of navigation is hardly a “non-issue” for China. Unjustified claims in the Spratly and Paracel islands are bad enough, but efforts to make these claims a fait accompli by artificially enlarging reefs and atolls, building airstrips and fortifications, and installing radar and other military systems are a direct challenge to international norms. The United States is not for or against any particular claim; what we oppose is the attempt to resolve these claims by figuratively, and sometimes literally, bulldozing through international law, taking unilateral action and threatening to resolve claims by force.

Attempts to engage the Chinese on these issues are generally met by protests that the United States is infringing on China’s “core interests.” Trying to extend the use of this phrase from control of Tibet or Taiwan to the South China Sea, Chinese officials have seemed to use “core interest” as a self-defined declaration to shut down discussion. But as I have occasionally told them, they can’t just play the “core interests” card and expect the United States to endorse claims and demands that threaten the principled, inclusive network — and especially that network’s principles on peaceful resolution of conflict and opposition to coercion, as well as freedom of commerce and navigation.

WorldPost: In the best of all worlds, what would an “inclusive” security arrangement in Asia look like? Do you see cooperation with China on North Korean disarmament, and potentially even ultimately resolving the crisis, as the embryo of such an arrangement?

Carter: In addition to the dimensions I outlined earlier, an inclusive security network in Asia includes military cooperation as well as economic and diplomatic connections, including the annual “Rim of the Pacific” exercise, joint patrols and arms sales. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a good example of an economic policy that would have bolstered security in Asia by offering companies and countries an alternative to one-on-one contests of strength with China that they will lose. For that reason, I often said that the TPP was as important strategically as an aircraft carrier. Our failure to finalize participation in the agreement damaged our national security in the region.

The North Korean state owes its existence and its survival to China’s economic, political and military support. Yet time and again, China has chosen to tolerate or even encourage North Korea’s misbehavior — to choose its own, narrow (and in my mind, misguided) goals over avoidance of a bloody war on the Korean Peninsula.

What passes for conventional wisdom in North Korea — a forced choice between option A, of diplomacy, and option B, of war — is the wrong way to think about the threat. A better approach is what I call “coercive diplomacy.” By combining tough measures that inflict pain on Pyongyang along with hard-nosed talks aimed at strictly limiting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s ability to further develop and deploy nuclear weapons, coercive diplomacy would force him to make the hard choices that can lead either to peace or a war that means utter destruction for his nation.

The six-party approach is right because it allows the United States, South Korea, Japan and China to pool their carrots and sticks. Any agreement will necessarily be step by step, with a series of prescribed steps for North Korea to take, each of which is rewarded or punished.

While patience is required, I would never trade U.S. military exercises on the Korean Peninsula for progress on North Korean denuclearization. I would also never agree in advance to an overall peace agreement with North Korea. Finally, I would never agree to a presidential summit with the North Korean leader except to sign a completely buttoned-down, final agreement.

WorldPost: The Trump administration has signaled it is likely to pull out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, not least because China is not part of it and maintains a substantial force of intermediate range missiles with nuclear capability. Can you envision China ever agreeing to a more global INF Treaty?

Carter: China will not join the INF Treaty since it relies heavily on large numbers of missiles of precisely this range. On balance, I don’t favor U.S. withdrawal, since it will make even more necessary U.S. deterrence, defense and counterforce initiatives than Russia’s present violations of the treaty does. At the same time, we don’t need the INF more than Russia does, and its walking away would open up some new avenues for U.S. capabilities in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

This was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post.