TOKYO -- President Donald Trump's former national security adviser said on Friday that current tensions between Washington and Beijing do not amount to a new Cold War, and that the U.S.'s beef is with the Chinese Communist Party, not the Chinese people.
Speaking at a security symposium hosted by Nikkei and the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Tokyo, retired Gen. H.R. McMaster called on the U.S. and other liberal democracies to turn their values -- perceived by China as weaknesses -- into strengths.
"Strong democratic institutions and processes are the best way to resist the [Chinese Communist] Party's effort to co-opt and coerce nations," he said. "A key advantage of democracies over autocracies is the power that citizens have to demand change."
McMaster, who was fired by Trump over policy disagreements in March 2018, pointed to today's protests in Hong Kong and in Tiananmen Square thirty years ago as proof that the Chinese people are not culturally predisposed to autocracy.
The retired general urged the audience to see beyond a false dilemma between war and passive accommodation of China's predatory, aggressive, and unfair practices.
"Competing effectively with China, I believe, is the best way to avoid confrontation," he said. "The United States, Japan and other free and open societies could no longer remain passive... Our complacency actually created opportunity."
Speaking at a later panel discussion was Victor Cha, Washington's former North Korea policy czar, whose nomination as ambassador to South Korea was withdrawn by the Trump administration.
Cha said Trump's decision to pull U.S. forces out of Syria, abandoning Kurdish allies to be attacked by Turkey, signaled a lack of faith to U.S. allies neighboring North Korea.
"Allies in general have this deep well of abandonment fear that the patron ally is always going to leave them," Cha said. "So when you see something like Syria happening, it does raise concerns."
The sole current Trump administration official on the panel also pushed for building trust between the U.S. and its partners.
"We see a great deal of alignment there but we can't stop where we just acknowledge that we view things the same way," said Randall Schriver, assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific affairs. "We need to operationalize those strategies."
In a rare move for a Trump appointee, Schriver praised the previous Obama administration, saying it "did a fantastic job" in developing relationships with Asian partners, namely India, Indonesia, and Vietnam.
"We do want to cooperate with China where our interests align," Schriver said. "We need China to interrupt ship-to-ship transfers to North Korea, but instead they're harassing U.S. ships that are enforcing sanctions."
Kurt M. Campbell, a former assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs under the Obama administration, raised concerns about the lack of Asian expertise currently inside the U.S. government. A record number of career diplomats, including Cha, have left the State Department under Trump, taking their institutional knowledge with them.
"We've not invested in intelligence in the way that we will need in the Asia-Pacific region," Campbell said.
"The biggest challenge to the liberal international order does not come from China -- it comes internally from the United States," Campbell added, warning about nationalist politics stoking disregard among policymakers for liberal values.