FOR THE FIRST TIME, THE AMERICAN GOVERNMENT HAS COME UP with a global, comprehensive plan to counter China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), with its National Security Strategy (NSS) unveiled by the president of the United States, Donald Trump, on December 18, 2017 in Washington, D.C. This is indeed the first time the U.S. government has challenged Belt and Road on a worldwide basis.
The BRI, mooted by the president of China, Xi Jinping, in 2013, aims to connect China with Central Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Russia, Middle East, Africa, Europe and Latin America with infrastructure projects like ports, roads, airports and railways. The infrastructure projects are supposed to facilitate trade, investment and travel across this wide geographic swathe, similar to the Silk Road centuries ago. The massive project is estimated to cost trillions of dollars.
Trump’s predecessor, the president Barack Obama had sought to counter China’s global expansion but on a piecemeal basis in selected regions, especially Asia and Africa. President Obama declared in a speech at the Australian Parliament on November 17, 2011 that the Asia Pacific was “a top priority” for U.S. policy, while the United States will continue to cooperate with China. The speech was regarded as Obama’s launch of his “pivot to Asia,” where the United States would keep up military spending in the Asia-Pacific and forge partnerships with countries in the region.
In a speech in the Ethiopian capital city, Addis Ababa, on July 28, 2015, Obama announced his Power Africa Initiative, which sought to invest billions of dollars in electricity in Africa.
But Trump is the first U.S. president to spell out a strategy to compete with China’s Belt and Road ambitions beyond Africa and the Asia-Pacific to Europe and Latin America, too. Trump announced his National Security Strategy in a speech: 
This strategy recognizes that … we are engaged in a new era of competition. We accept that vigorous military, economic, and political contests are now playing out all around the world. We also face rival powers, Russia and China that seek to challenge American influence, values, and wealth.
The NSS report reiterated Trump’s description of China as a rival, mentioning the word “China” thirty-three times. The report declared that China “seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor.” The United States must, therefore “marshal the will and capabilities to compete and prevent unfavorable shifts in the Indo-Pacific, Europe, and the Middle East.”
It declared that for decades, U.S. policy was rooted in the belief that support for China’s rise and for its integration into the post-war international order would liberalise China. But, “contrary to our hopes, China expanded its power at the expense of the sovereignty of others. China spreads features of its authoritarian system, including corruption and the use of surveillance,” and “it is building the most capable and well-funded military in the world, after our own.”
The strategy worries that “China is using economic inducements and penalties, influence operations, and implied military threats to persuade other states to heed its political and security agenda.” And that “China’s infrastructure investments and trade strategies reinforce its geopolitical aspirations.” It explains that “China presents its ambitions as mutually beneficial, but Chinese dominance risks diminishing the sovereignty of many states in the Indo- Pacific.”
U.S. diplomatic, intelligence, military, and economic agencies had not kept pace with the changes in the character of competition, the NSS explained. To meet these challenges, the United States must upgrade its political and economic instruments to operate in such environments.
Map of China’s Belt and Road, with its six proposed corridors, showing China in red and the countries of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in orange. This photo, by the courtesy of Wikicommons, is in the public domain.
The report detailed how the United States would counter Chinese globalisation. It proclaimed that China was investing billions of dollars in infrastructure across the world. The United States, for its part, provides an alternative to Chinese state-directed investments, which often left developing countries worse off. The NSS gave priority to the private sector over the government sector, in keeping with the ethos of Trump’s Republican Party. The report said the United States would offer a model for other countries to partner, based on “free market principles, fair and reciprocal trade” and the rule of law. The U.S. approach would emphasise “reforms that unlock the economic potential of citizens, such as the promotion of formal property rights”—projects that benefit U.S. businesses.
Although the report does not name China, it was clearly referring to China’s overseas strategy when it said, “Unlike the state-directed mercantilism of some competitors that can disadvantage recipient nations and promote dependency, the purpose of U.S. foreign assistance should be to end the need for it.”
Again, without naming China, it is obvious the report fingered China when it mentioned “low-quality deals”: “American-led investments represent the most sustainable and responsible approach to development and offer a stark contrast to the corrupt, opaque, exploitive, and low-quality deals offered by authoritarian states.” It added that many countries in Africa, Latin America, and Asia were eager for investments and financing to develop their infrastructure, and that such countries could become trading partners that bought more American-made goods and created more predictable business environments that benefitted American companies.
Trump intends to match China’s huge financing of Belt and Road projects. The United States will modernise its development financing so that U.S. companies have incentives to tap opportunities in developing countries, said the NSS. “With these changes, the United States will not be left behind as other states use investment and project finance to extend their influence.”
The NSS substituted the term Asia-Pacific with Indo-Pacific, explaining: “A geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order is taking place in the Indo-Pacific region.” The region, stretching from the west coast of India to the western shores of the United States, represents the most populous and economically dynamic part of the world, it noted.
Naming the Philippines, Thailand Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore as important U.S. allies, the NSS assured that the United States would strengthen its alliances and partnerships with these nations. “The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) remain centerpieces of the Indo-Pacific’s regional architecture and platforms for promoting an order based on freedom.”
The NSS hinted at U.S. support of open sea-lanes in the South China Sea, an area of dispute between China and some Southeast Asian nations. It declared that the United States would encourage regional cooperation to maintain free and open seaways, transparent infrastructure financing practices, unimpeded commerce, and the peaceful resolution of disputes, and would seek equal and reliable access for American exports.
Interspersed with its worries, the United States sent a message of assurance to China: while the United States would “maintain a forward military presence capable of deterring and, if necessary, defeating any adversary,” the United States would “maintain our strong ties with Taiwan in accordance with our “One China” policy, including our commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act to provide for Taiwan’s legitimate defense needs and deter coercion.”
According to the NSS, the United States will expand its defense and security cooperation with India, and support India’s relationships throughout the South Asian region.
During the Cold War, the United States saw the Soviet Union as the main threat to Europe. Now, faraway China is seen as a new threat, as the NSS claims that “China is gaining a strategic foothold in Europe by expanding its unfair trade practices and investing in key industries, sensitive technologies, and infrastructure. We will work with our partners to contest China’s unfair trade and economic practices and restrict its acquisition of sensitive technologies.”
The NSS also cites the growing Chinese influence in Latin America, a continent that the United States has considered its own sphere of influence and has historically sought to prevent encroachment by outside powers: “China seeks to pull the region into its orbit through state-led investments and loans.” It adds that “both China and Russia support the dictatorship in Venezuela and are seeking to expand military linkages and arms sales across the region,” and as a result, “the hemisphere’s democratic states have a shared interest in confronting threats to their sovereignty.”
Accusing some Chinese elements of corruption in Africa, the NSS claims, “China is expanding its economic and military presence in Africa, growing from a small investor in the continent two decades ago into Africa’s largest trading partner today.” It explains that “some Chinese practices undermine Africa’s long-term development by corrupting elites, dominating extractive industries, and locking countries into unsustainable and opaque debts and commitments.”
These worries suggest the possibility that the Trump administration may use the long arm of U.S. law to penalise Chinese companies allegedly involved in graft in their overseas businesses, by bringing them under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (a law that may be applicable if the Chinese investors have any business dealings in the United States). And, for its part, the United States would expand trade and commercial ties between Americans and Africans, offering American goods and services, “because it is profitable for us and because it serves as an alternative to China’s often extractive economic footprint on the continent.”
Reminiscent of the Cold War, the NSS made U.S. support of countries contingent on their friendliness to Washington: “We will prioritize collaboration with aspiring partners that are aligned with US interests.” Such a policy of creating alliances friendly to the United States harkens back to the Cold War confrontation between the so-called Free World and the Red World. It puts countries that want to be friendly with both the United States and China in a bind.
Indeed, the reaction of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the National Security Strategy came swiftly. It accused the Trump administration of a Cold War mindset. At a press conference of the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Beijing on December 19, 2017, the ministry spokesperson, Hua Chunying, declared: “We urge the U.S. side to stop deliberately distorting China’s strategic intentions, and abandon such outdated concepts as the Cold War mentality and the zero-sum game, otherwise it will only end up harming itself as well as others.” She urged that “cooperation is the only right choice for China and the United States,” explaining that China aimed to “enhance solidarity and cooperation with the developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America,” and that “China’s economic and diplomatic activities are broadly welcomed by countries all over the world. It is futile for any country or any report to distort the facts or hurl malicious slander.”
The Cold War freeze brought the United States into alliance with Chiang Kai-shek. U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower visits with Republic of China President Chiang Kai-shek and Madame Chiang in Taipei, Taiwan, in June 1960. Also pictured is the U.S. Ambassador to Republic of China. This photo, by the courtesy of the U.S. Agency for International Development and Wikicommons, is in the public domain.
Chinese state news agency Xinhua struck an indignant note in a commentary on December 19, 2017: “To label other countries as “rivals” goes against reality and the increasingly interlinked interests of countries in this era of globalization.” “A ‘peace’ that supports unilateralism and zero-sum thinking shirks international responsibility, will make it difficult to gain the respect and trust of other nations,” it declared.
The foreign minister of China, Wang Yi, declared that the notion that China was a threat should be “laid to rest.” He was speaking at a press conference on the sidelines of a session of China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress, in Beijing on March 8, 2018. On whether China posed a challenge to the United States, Wang clarified that China had “no need or intention of replacing the United States” in its global role, and it was “fundamentally wrong” for anyone to say so.
Despite some element of competition, Wang said, China-U.S. ties were defined more by partnership than rivalry. He stated that China-Japan relations were improving, and called for mutual trust between China and India. Wang pointed out China’s contribution to global economic growth was bigger than that of the U.S., Japan and the Euro zone combined, and that China accounted for more than 70 percent of poverty reduction worldwide.
Reactions by analysts in the U.S. to the NSS were divided, with some lauding Trump for taking a tough line against China while others criticising it. Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow of the Council of Foreign Relations, a U.S. foreign policy think tank, hailed the NSS as “an impressive achievement” in a blog post on December 26, 2017. Elliott claimed that the strategy offered a “tough and realistic view” of China and Russia as competitors of the United States, and that it “clearly calls for American leadership—not for isolationism.”
A paper of the Brookings Institution faulted the strategy for neglecting past achievements of Sino-U.S. cooperation. Authored by Jeffrey A. Bader and Ryan Hass, both fellows of the John L. Thornton China Center at Brookings, the paper criticised the strategy’s rethink of U.S. policy towards China as “dubious analysis and bad history.” Bader and Hass acknowledged that the United States was facing challenges from a rising China, but argued the NSS had inflated the challenges without offering answers. Bader and Hass wryly noted: “The NSS puts the emphasis on competition, if not outright confrontation. Interestingly, when not pontificating in strategy documents, Trump officials seem to understand the need for a mix of cooperation and competition.”
Writing in the Texas National Security Review, Zack Cooper and Mira Rapp-Hooper argue that the Trump administration lacks sufficient human resources, including Asia experts, to fully implement a more competitive strategy against China. Cooper, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Rapp-Hooper, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, believe that having discarded the past U.S. policy of cooperating with China as a “responsible stakeholder,” the NSS does not lay out a new strategy. The authors cite Trump’s unpredictability and tendency to sometimes take a soft line towards Beijing. For these reasons, the Trump administration will likely struggle to make its rhetoric shift into a strategic reality, they argue.
Presently, it will be much more difficult for the United States to implement a competitive strategy against China, given the increasingly closer economic links between the world’s biggest economy, the United States, and the world’s second largest economy, China, compared to the Cold War era. From the 1950s to 1970s, the United States had minimal economic ties with China and the Soviet Union, so it was much easier for it to confront these two powers. Now, if the United States punishes China economically, it risks hurting itself since the global supply chain for products, for instance, like smart phones includes both countries.
The NSS calls on the United States to partner countries around the world to counter Chinese influence, but some of the Trump administration’s policies are driving other countries towards China. In early March 2018, for example, both China and the European Union criticised the Trump administration for imposing steel and aluminum tariffs against them. Asian and European nations are siding with China against the United States in global financing schemes. The China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which the United States has refused to join, now has more than eighty member states, including virtually all major European nations.
Even the Asian countries that regard the United States as a staunch ally are unlikely to go too far in supporting Washington at the risk of alienating China, which has become an increasingly important economic partner for them.
The NSS derides the allegedly low quality of Chinese infrastructure projects, but the reality is that Chinese companies are dominant players in infrastructure, while fewer U.S. companies offer similarly comprehensive infrastructure capabilities. It would make more sense for the United States to partner China, where U.S. companies provide more high-tech infrastructure like digital connections, while Chinese firms build hard infrastructure like roads and railway.
It will, thus, be difficult for Washington to convert its bluster into the reality of a coalition to contain China in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The world, including the United States, depends too much on China for trade, investment and finance.
Toh Han Shih holds a B.S. in physics from the California Institute of Technology, and a doctorate in physics from Oxford University. He also has a Master’s in Southeast Asian Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and has completed a part-time Master’s of Economics at Hong Kong University. Han Shih is a Singapore-born writer with twenty years of experience in business journalism. He lives in Hong Kong. In December 2016, he published the book, Is China an Empire? Previously, he worked as a journalist at the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong for nearly ten years. From 2007 to 2008, he worked at Kroll, and in the late 1990s, he was a reporter at the Business Times in Singapore.
 Barack Obama, “Remarks by President Obama to the Australian Parliament,” The White House, November 17, 2011.
 Barack Obama, “Remarks by President Obama to the People of Africa,” The White House, July 28, 2015.
 Donald Trump, “Remarks by President Trump on the Administration’s National Security Strategy,” The White House, December 18, 2017.
 Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying’s Regular Press Conference on December 19, 2017, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs website. http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/xwfw_665399/s2510_665401/t1520766.shtml.
 “The US should drop its ‘If you win, I lose’ strategy,” Xinhua, December 19, 2017.
 “China champions peace, development, will not replace US,” Xinhua, March 8, 2018.
 Elliott Abrams, “The Trump National Security Strategy,” Council on Foreign Relations, December 26, 2017.
 Jeffrey A. Bader and Ryan Hass, “Was pre-Trump US strategy towards China based on “False” Premises? China in Trump’s National Security Strategy,” Brookings Institution, December 22, 2017.
 Zack Cooper and Mira Rapp-Hooper, “China, America and the End of the Responsible Stakeholder Theory,” Texas National Security Review, December 21, 2017.
 Wayne Ma, Emre Peker and Doug Cameron, “China, Europe Slam Trump’s Tariffs as U.S. Metal Workers Cheer,” Wall Street Journal, March 9, 2018. https://www.wsj.com/articles/china-slams-trumps-tariffs-as-allies-hold-out-hope-for-talks-1520585331.