As the world reacts to Donald Trump’s upset election, America’s allies and rivals are searching for any clues to his foreign policy outlook. China may have received its clearest signal yet, in a South China Morning Post op-ed from one of Trump’s senior national security advisors, James Woolsey. Here is the key paragraph:
Our ideological differences should also be better managed. America’s commitment to the spread of freedom is unwavering. Yet, as we improve our understanding of the complexities of the Chinese social and political system, it becomes increasingly apparent that challenging the current system is a risky endeavour. We may not like it but we don’t necessarily have to do something about it. I can therefore see the emergence of a grand bargain in which the US accepts China’s political and social structure and commits not to disrupt it in any way in exchange for China’s commitment not to challenge the status quo in Asia. It may not be a spoken agreement but a tacit understanding that guides the relations in the years to come.
Trump has issued conflicting signals on China, and his Cabinet picks will give a fuller sign of his intentions. Still, Woolsey’s talk of a “grand bargain” that gives China free rein on its domestic politics makes sense for a president-elect who has shown little interest in the democracy-building and human rights agendas that have informed previous Republican administrations.
Instead, Woolsey suggests that a Trump administration’s priority would be to aggressively defend the American security status quo in Asia. He writes of the need to reverse defense cuts, project power and deter Chinese expansionsm. This, too, is in line with Trump’s Jacksonian focus on creating a military that is, in his words, “so big, powerful and strong that no one will mess with us.”
Woolsey also suggests that Trump should accommodate China’s desire to create and shape international institutions. “It is widely accepted in Washington today that the Obama administration’s opposition to the formation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank was a strategic mistake,” he writes, “and I hope that the next administration’s response to the Belt and Road initiative will be much warmer.” Indeed, as we have written before, the Obama administration’s knee-jerk opposition to China’s investment bank was a mistake that denied the U.S. any leverage and did not prevent our allies from joining the effort.
Will Trump follow through on Woolsey’s suggestions for the China relationship? That remains to be seen, and conventional wisdom surrounding Donald Trump has tended to fall flat this election. But Woolsey’s comments give us the clearest look yet into what Trump’s foreign policy advisers may be whispering into his ear.