With the release of the National Security Strategy (NSS) and the National Defense Strategy (NDS), the White House has laid out its China policy. With both these documents, the Trump administration has taken up a decidedly confrontational approach towards the country. The US has repeatedly singled China out, along with Russia, as a major rival to the US.
The 2018 NSS has China marked as a “revisionist power”. The NSS describes China as working with the aim to ultimately “shape a world antithetical to US values and interests,” “displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region,” “reorder the region in its favor,” “expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model,” and “steal U.S. intellectual property.” The 2018 NDS identifies competition with “revisionist powers” such as China as the leading challenge to US prosperity and security in the region. According to the NDS, China uses “predatory economics to intimidate its neighbors while militarizing features in the South China Sea” and wants “Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and displacement of the United States to achieve global pre-eminence in the future.” The more recently released Nuclear Posture Review, also published by the United States Department of Defense (DoD), further supports this narrative wherein China’s nuclear strength is marked as a major threat to US standing the region.
Moreover, China has also been consistently blamed by the US President Donald Trump for the US-China trade imbalance. Last month for instance, Trump imposed tariffs on washing machines and solar panels, which happen to be two of China’s most important export products. Besides threatening to launch a trade war, the American president has also mentioned his plans to sanction China harshly for intellectual property theft.
“We have a very big intellectual property potential fine going, which is going to come out soon,” Trump revealed in an interview. “We’re talking about big damages. We’re talking about numbers that you haven’t even thought about.”
This year’s Munich Security Conference (MSC) took place amid this “China threat” rhetoric which has been gaining momentum globally.
The German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel in his speech at the conference censured China for “constantly trying to test and undermine the unity of the European Union” and seeking to expand its influence over other states with “sticks and carrots”. According to “The Sydney Morning Herald”, Gabriel criticized China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) severely, claiming that China is using the BRI and subsequent Chinese investments to push forth a value system markedly different from that of the West.
In response to the growing concern among foreign leaders and more specifically the West regarding China’s intentions and its development model, Chinese senior diplomat Fu Ying adopted a much softer tone, attempting to perhaps present a pleasanter image of China at the MSC. In sharp contrast to the kind of aggressive tone Trump has adopted in referring to China, Fu attempted to explain China’s position using language that signaled China’s openness and approachability when it comes to its foreign policy.
Fu, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Chinese National People’s Congress, wrote an article for a special edition of German Times before the MSC, in which Fu said, “China is not interested in the so-called ‘competition of systems’.”
Fu explained China’s position as it intensifies its foreign investments, saying: “We wish to play a role in world affairs and make an even greater contribution to mankind…but this does not mean that China’s model and ideology are to be exported.”
In order to also further explain China’s position with respect to the recently released Nuclear Posture Review, which marks China’s nuclear strength as a threat, Fu joined a panel discussion on nuclear security. She highlighted China’s “no first use” principle, claiming that “under no circumstances will China use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states or nuclear-weapon-free zones.”
It is important to note that Fu did not add anything new to China’s objectives when it comes to its method of conducting foreign policy. The only difference that got other foreign leaders more willing to engage with China and Fu specifically following the MSC was Fu’s management of soft diplomacy and the ‘way’ in which Fu expressed the Chinese position.
Fu has been actively working to explain China’s stance on several foreign media platforms and think tanks. Impressed with Fu’s style of conducting diplomacy, the South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha also invited Fu to lunch before Kang met with her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in late December 2017.
Despite the Trump administration’s tough stance on China US allies and partners in the region are not as eager to share the same zero-sum idea of ties with China. There is nonetheless significant concern among countries about China’s regional ambitions. If the US wants to truly address the China challenge, it must invest more in diplomacy. Meanwhile, China is working to build its image as a cooperative and peaceful power. At the same time China wants to reduce friction between the US and China because tense relations with the US comes in the way of China’s regional developmental plans. Earlier this month, Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi, China’s top diplomat, had a working luncheon with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the State Department to negotiate with Washington on these grounds. For both countries regional instability in Afghanistan also presents a golden opportunity for bilateral cooperation.