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International relations

China hawks in Trump administration jostle for power

Economic nationalists gaining clout brings Japan and EU into firing line

Two hard-liners groups within the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump are competing to gain influence over America's China policy.   © Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- China's rapid rise in the high-tech and maritime sectors has given hard-liners within the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump reason to make their voices heard. Two factions are battling for influence, and the outcome of their jostle for power is set to influence global geopolitics well beyond U.S.-China relations.

One group is focused on drawing economic benefits for the U.S. and the other prioritizes security. While Washington and Beijing are aiming to complete trade talks by late February, a deadline set by Trump, few experts see the tensions easing rapidly.

Australia, Japan and India, which have been antagonized by China's maritime expansion, are quietly pleased with the prolonged U.S.-China strategic competition, partly because they hope that the growing tension will leave the Trump administration little choice but to embrace its allies.

But such hopes may be futile. Even if Washington takes a harsher line against Beijing, it does not necessarily mean it will cozy up to its friends.

The closed conference of U.S. and Japanese officials and experts held in January in Washington provides some hints to the different stance taken by the Trump administration from previous governments.

Attendees agreed that China was challenging the U.S.-led world order. But what was notably missing this year from American participants was any strong voice in support of cooperation, not confrontation. A former U.S. official who has long served as an executive of a leading Washington think tank said 70% to 80% of policymakers in Washington believe the U.S. should add pressure on Beijing, with the remaining few arguing for an easing of tensions.

This view is held not only by the Trump administration. Many Democrats also support coming down hard on China.

Within the government, the group of China hawks focused on security wants to stop Beijing from expanding its sphere of military and political influence. They see this expansion as a threat to the security of the U.S. and its allies.

The other group prioritizes the economy and jobs. In particular, they want to repatriate jobs that have flowed out of the country and they are not scared of employing protectionist tactics.

In general, U.S. allies would find it easier to work with the group that prioritizes security. This faction aims to strengthen ties with Japan, Australia and India to counter China's military expansion in the Indo-Pacific region.

Such a policy is supported mainly by the U.S. Department of Defense, the military and security-related divisions of the State Department. Prominent individuals in this group have included former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan.

Flanked by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, center, and Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, right, Trump speaks before signing a memorandum on intellectual property tariffs on high-tech goods from China on March 22, 2018.   © Reuters

The economic nationalists, on the other hand, view Japan, the European Union and South Korea with suspicion as these economic powers also have trade surpluses with the U.S.

They are quick to consider retaliatory sanctions such as tariffs on autos, even on friends and allies of the U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross are leaders in this group.

While both groups want tough action on China, their positions toward U.S. allies are incompatible. Last year, when the U.S. imposed sanctions on European and Japanese steel and aluminum, Mattis, who was then defense secretary, and his allies reportedly opposed the move and clashed with the economic nationalists.

A big question now is, which of these factions will gain greater control of the administration. If you ask U.S. government officials, they may well suggest the economic nationalists will gain the upper hand, as they have Trump's ear.

One of the reasons for this is that Trump has his eye on the next presidential election in the fall of 2020. For Trump, it would be more appealing to voters if he pledges to bring back jobs. Scoring national security successes would not win him as many votes.

The other factor is Trump's fundamental view that he should distance the U.S. from its allies, which he considers burdens. The U.S. president has previously stated a desire to withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea.

If the economic nationalists gain clout in the administration, Japan and the EU may be next in line to face tariffs on exports like automobiles. Trump may not hesitate to destabilize the relationship between Washington, Brussels and Tokyo, at a time when the three are needed to form a united front to face China's growing influence. With this in mind, Beijing may knowingly drag its feet in responding to U.S. pressure to stop high-tech espionage and the theft of intellectual property.

The problem is, such a scenario is not on the cards for the economic nationalists. An informed source said they believe the U.S. can bring China to its knees without any help from its allies. Whether this is overconfidence on their part remains to be seen.

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