By Other Means | Risk Intelligence | Security | East Asia

Pompeo, US-China Competition, and Strategy

Who told Mike Pompeo he gets to lead the “free world”?

Ankit Panda
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Pompeo, US-China Competition, and Strategy
Credit: Flickr/ U.S. Department of State

Welcome to “By Other Means,” a new blog here at The Diplomat that I’ll be anchoring. As the titular allusion to Clausewitz’s famous definition of “war” suggests, I mostly intend for this to be a space for reflection on conflict, crises, and geopolitical tension in the Asia-Pacific region. For long-time readers of The Diplomat, think of something similar to the coverage we’ve run for years at Flashpoints.

For new readers, a short introduction is in order: I’ve been covering and commenting on Asian affairs for seven years here at The Diplomat. “Asia,” understandably, is a big place, but my interests span the region. Some of my most recent writing here has focused on topics including U.S. policy in the South China Sea, U.S.-China nuclear arms control, and Australia’s 2020 Defense Strategic Update. I take a particular interest in the Korean Peninsula and South Asia; I’m the author of “Kim Jong Un and the Bomb: Survival and Deterrence in North Korea,” published by Hurst Publishers (UK) and Oxford University Press (U.S.).

I hope you’ll find something that piques your interest here. In any case, thanks for reading and you can always reach me with your comments by email. Elsewhere at The Diplomat, you can find me as the host of the Asia Geopolitics* podcast, which I’ve been hosting since 2014, and at the APAC Risk Update newsletter. But that’s enough by way of introduction — let’s get to business.

Fortunately, I don’t have to wrack my mind too much to come up with a suitable topic for this inaugural post. Mike Pompeo, the U.S. secretary of state, has given us yet another example of how the Trump administration fails when it comes to articulating a strategy for dealing with China. This is something I’ve been writing about since basically the start of the Trump administration, when it became clear that the U.S.-China relationship was about to undergo a significant transformation. Pompeo’s July 23 speech at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, titled “Communist China and the Free World’s Future” might fool you into assuming it’ll take on the sort of significance that Winston Churchill’s famous Fulton speech (the “Iron Curtain speech”) took on at the onset of the Cold War, but that’d be too generous to the U.S. secretary of state.

What Churchill did was articulate something of a means-ends matched strategic approach (albeit, in not in greatly specific terms). In short, because of the Soviet Union was not to be trusted, the “special relationship” between the United States and the United Kingdom needed to stand strong, as a bulwark against the perceived expansion of Moscow’s influence. Pompeo, by contrast, seeks to rally the “free world,” but does so largely by listing a long list of grievances with China. In doing so, he casts his lot with not Churchill, but U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who largely delivered a similar address on U.S.-China relations back in 2018. The mistake both speeches make is in prescribing their preferred means as an end: in short, to compete with China, the United States must compete with China. To what end? This much is left unclear.

Perhaps this is ungenerous. Insofar as Pompeo does envision some end-state, it may implicitly be regime change in China. He is explicit in calling on the Chinese people — whom he laudably sets apart from the leadership of the Communist Party of China (CPC) — to change the CPC. Pompeo is careful not to say this explicitly, but the speech fundamentally casts the CPC as illegitimate internally and a menace externally. The call to condition the Party’s “behavior” will be seen in China as a fig-leaf for regime change, something that hardliners in the CPC have taken as granted as the eventual objective of the United States and its allies and partners.

One of the speech’s main objectives appears to be a call-to-arms, like Churchill at Fulton, but it’s not clear that Pompeo’s framing will serve to attract the most critical constituency in today’s ongoing competition with China: Asia’s “swing” states. Countries like Japan, India, and Australia are already largely convinced of the U.S. cause to constrain Chinese room for maneuver in Asia, but it’s the smaller states — many in Southeast Asia, in particular — who’ve expressed anxiety about being the “grass” that gets trodden underneath as the great power “elephants” fight. For these countries, Pompeo’s speech may amount to little more than a leading indicator that the elephants are about to stomp harder and faster.

Finally, as an American who does see much worth fighting for and saving in the “free world,” I’d be remiss if I did not underscore perhaps the most glaring problem with Pompeo’s speech and the Trump administration’s broader efforts to lead the vanguard of the “free and open” Indo-Pacific. As the secretary spoke, images of clashes between Federal law enforcement agents and peaceful protesters in the northwestern U.S. city of Portland were almost indistinguishable from scenes in Hong Kong last year at the height of the anti-extradition law protests — all on the backs of the Trump administration’s growing authoritarian turn at home. Not only does all of this underscore the ludicrousness of Mike Pompeo, of all people, setting up a call for the “free world” to unite, but so too does the Trump administration’s record on U.S. alliances raise natural questions about the legitimacy of the United States as a coalition leader today.

None of this is to say that American thinking on the relationship with China must succumb to whataboutism regarding the deep work that remains to be done on governance and social issues at home. But the best way for the United States to lead the “free world” is to serve as an exemplar: in how it behaves internally, in how it treats its allies and partners around the world, and how it contributes to global public goods. To take just a handful of examples, it strains credulity that the administration that has shaken down democratic allies for cash and pulled funding for the World Health Organization in the middle of a global pandemic can be seen as the kind of exemplar that Pompeo would want.

My critiques of the administration’s chosen approach shouldn’t be mistaken for a dismissal of the broader challenge for U.S. foreign policy that China represents today. Under Xi Jinping, China increasingly assertive behavior along its periphery and rising global ambitions stand to leave a world more primed for the spread of authoritarian ideals than ever before. The engagement bargain—the idea that a broader, neoliberal process of assuring ever-increasing economic interdependency between the United States and China would transform the latter—has largely failed. Finally, given the deep reputational and material costs the United States has paid over the Trump years, China is better positioned than ever to blunt U.S. relative power in the international system.

These challenges will require a deeply serious effort to, in material terms, preserve a favorable balance of power in the Asia-Pacific for the United States and its allies and partners (not all of whom, mind you, may be as “free and open” as Washington would like). But there are several other still-missing pieces to the strategic end-game with China, pertaining to how Washington and Beijing can find manage what appears to be an inexorable process of economic decoupling.

With hardly 100 days left before the U.S. election, Pompeo’s speech should leave us primed for additional friction in the U.S.-China relationship. The competition will continue — and it’s here to say, even if the Trump administration isn’t reelected. Thanks for reading this inaugural post; there’ll be much more to say on this and other topics in the weeks to come.

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