Dennis Wilder is a professor in the practice at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. He is also the managing director and a senior fellow with the Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues at Georgetown. He served more than three decades as a leading China expert working on intelligence and national security for the U.S. government. Most recently, Wilder served as the CIA’s deputy assistant director for East Asia and the Pacific and previous to that had roles as the senior editor of the president’s Daily Brief and National Security Council special assistant to the president and senior director for East Asian affairs. He interviewed with William Shi CMC’ 20 on February 2, 2018.
Why are the U.S. National Security Strategy and Defense Strategy important official policy documents?
First of all, both of these documents are mandated or required by Congress. The key audience for these reports is the United States Congress. They build the Administration’s roadmap to inform people of the vision the administration has at the strategic level. For example, the authors of the National Security Strategy consulted with every member of the Cabinet during the drafting process, which took many months. So it is the synthesis of the views and vision of this administration. The National Defense Strategy follows from the National Security Strategy, so it follows the strategic outline and gives more details on how the United States Defense Department will implement the overall National Security Strategy. Now, while the entire National Security Strategy was released in the fall, what we have is actually an unclassified summary of the Defense Strategy because the real details of the Defense Strategy are classified. There are other ways that these documents are used to inform the public and, of course, the international community of the vision of the new administration. They are obviously studied closely by governments around the world, which are looking for the various changes and directions of the U.S. Government. For example, not too surprisingly, given President Trump’s view, this National Security Strategy did not call climate change a national security threat. That is different from the last Obama strategy, which did give priority to climate change as a national security threat.
In the media coverage of the release of these two documents, many commentators seem to agree that these two strategy papers regard China as a strategic adversary. Do you agree?
I agree if you just look at these two documents, you would think that way, but one of the things that makes it a little difficult to understand is the president did a press briefing on the day the National Security Strategy came out. In that briefing, he actually articulated a different vision. Instead of talking about the strategic adversary, he talked about a new era of cooperation with China. China and Russia are trying to challenge the U.S. influence, values and wealth, but he hopes to build a partnership. I think it is a little difficult to paint the administration’s position so starkly as strategic adversary. I think the better reflection of the view of President Trump (and) this administration is actually found in what he said afterwards. I do think he thinks there is a new era of competition between the U.S. and China, but I don’t think it’s at that point a strategic adversary.
Some critics argue that the U.S. should not regard China and Russia in the same way because of the interdependence between China and the U.S. and the greater extent of cooperation such as the Iran-nuclear deal and the Paris climate accord. Do you agree with this assessment?
I agree. I think that some of the writings of in these documents are a little bit clumsy. They were trying to make bold statements, and they lumped Russia and China together in those bold statements. My own view is that Russia is seen as a strategic rival of the United States. It interferes with U.S. elections and violates arms control agreements. It took Crimea and is still interfering with the government in Ukraine. These are all clear threats to the international order. In my view though, China is a very different case. It has a strong desire to be at the table to reshape some of the rules of the international liberal order, but it isn’t an imminent threat to that order as Russia is. So I think the document in that sense was poorly written.
Regarding China and Russia, the Security Strategy mentions that the U.S. " overestimated the dividends of cooperation and underappreciated the character of U.S. economic and military competition with both countries," stressing that efforts to incorporate them in the international order have failed. In response, China criticized the U.S. for its "cold-war mentality" over the Defense Strategy. Do these responses reveal that the room of cooperation is diminishing?
First of all, I don’t agree with the idea that the past administration somehow had it wrong. The implication here is somehow there was a wrong judgment, or somehow the past administration was fooled by the Chinese into thinking there would be more cooperation. I don’t think that is what was happening. I think the diagnosis is wrong. What has actually happened is there has been growing frustration on the U.S. side, particularly on economic issues. The perception, which I think is somewhat accurate, is China has changed directions. When China signed up to the WTO, it did a lot of things in early years to open its market and bring its economy into line with the world trade system. But since the Third Plenum of the 18th Party Congress, where China on paper looked still committed to those kinds of market-oriented reforms, what we have seen is some retrogression. If you talked with the U.S. and international business communities and read the papers their trade associations produce, you will see they believe that there have been changes in the Chinese attitude. So it isn’t we were wrong about China before, but rather there has been a change in the Chinese interaction with these issues. On the military side, it is a bit the same picture. Since 2012, China has become more assertive in its military posture, exemplified by the conflicts going on in the East China Sea and South China Sea, where China has territorial disputes with its neighbors. So I don’t think we overestimated the dividends of cooperation at all, but I think the level of competition has increased as new Chinese leaders have taken a different direction. In terms of the “cold-war mentality” or similar statements, it’s a warning by the Chinese government to Washington that we shouldn’t go back to the time when the United States had a containment strategy. I think that’s right, we don’t want to go back to the “cold-war mentality,” but it’s a sign of the room for cooperation, which is still there but may be diminishing a bit.
You mentioned that China’s response can be attributed to the ways of Chinese leaders manage issues. Do you think that China’s expansion of its economic and military power changed Chinese leaders’ vision and their perceptions of China’s role in the international affairs?
Yes, I think that’s part of it. One of the things that scholars have noticed is overtime, Deng Xiaoping’s philosophy of “keeping a low profile” has diminished, and China sees itself, as Xi Jinping said in the 19th Party Congress speech, moving to the center of the world stage. That is a big change. That was not what China was doing a few years ago. Of course, because China is a bigger, more influential power, and it’s moving out into the world in the way it didn’t before, that is causing some people to reassess. I think that is the heart of the new concept in Washington that we are more in a competition with China.
Both documents give the Asia-Pacific or the "Indo-Pacific" special attention, emphasizing ongoing alliances and partnerships. What are the major continuities and departures of the Indo-Pacific strategy compared with "the Re-balance to Asia" under the Obama administration?
The most critical continuity in both strategies is the United States has been and always will be a Pacific power. The commitment to U.S. allies and friends in the region is unshakable, and will stand the test of time and the test of challenges to U.S. influence. Both put a high priority in keeping a forward military posture in the region and devoting military and economic resources to defend the liberal international order in Asia. Now, what’s the key difference? The key difference is in the Indo-Pacific Strategy, the region is actually bigger than just East Asia. When we look at this, we need to think in terms of the regions extending into the Indian Ocean, and states that are on the Indian Ocean, and bringing those states into our partnership into East Asia more completely. This idea has been around for a while. I remember in the Bush Administration when I was in the White House, we did some quadrilateral meetings between leaders of the India, the United States, Japan and Australia. So people have been thinking about this for a while. In fact, if you look at how the U.S. Pacific Command is structured, you can see for many years, India has been part of the Pacific command region. So it’s not a new concept, but it’s more of a new emphasis on the idea of bringing India in particular geostrategically into play with East Asia and as more of a defense partner with the United States and like-minded democracies in these areas such as Japan and Australia. It also reemphasized the maritime nature of our commitment. This is very critical because America has always believed maritime influence is terribly important to free and fair trade. So it is a combination of a military and geopolitical strategy but also a bit of the economic strategy. Some have said that it was an answer to the Belt and Road Initiative, which I don’t think is too far from the truth.
Based on the tone of the documents and their characterization of China, is it fair to say that within the U.S. government the dominant view today is that the engagement policy toward China has failed? Has there been a fundamental reassessment of U.S.-China relations in Washington?
I would say it is the dominant view within the Trump White House, but I don’t think you can say within the whole U.S. government. I think there are still a lot of people in the United States government in the Department of State and elsewhere, who don’t believe engagement has failed. If you looked at the history of U.S.-China relations since normalization, one of the things people tend to forget is the relationship tends to go up and down. It ebbs and flows. In the 1970’s, we had common cause against the Soviets. In the Clinton Administration, there was a deep decline in the relationship because of the June 4th, but the warming up of the administrations because of the WTO. When I worked at the White House under President Bush, we started with the EP-3 Crisis on the Hainan Island, and the talk of strategic adversary in the documents of the Republican Party. What we ended up was the president of the United States going to Beijing for the Olympics and a very close relationship with China. So my view is we are going toward a downward trend in the relationship, but there are fundamentals that are important here. The United States and China have fundamental national security interests in many areas still where engagement is both good and necessary. Our economies are intertwined today, we can’t stop being engaged with China on world economic issues. That’s just not possible. The world’s biggest economy and the world’s second biggest economy have to find ways to work together. We both share the problem of North Korean nuclearization. We both share the problem of terrorism. Those in the administration who think that engagement has failed are just not looking at the historical record.
Besides its official response, how should Beijing read these two documents?
It is important to realize that these documents are political documents and part of the American political process. These are documents written mostly for the United States Congress, and so if you look at the Pentagon document, it clearly set up the case for greater funding for defense modernization and defense readiness. Some of the statements for example, the one that put Russia and China together, I think are in part designed to make a strong case for asking for more defense budget. One of my pieces of advice to the Chinese is something Deng Xiaoping always said, which is to “seek truth from facts.” China needs to judge American policies much more on the basis of what the Trump Administration does than on what the Trump Administration puts on paper. There are many areas where we will build a partnership. I think these documents are not the final word on American foreign policy in the Trump Administration. They should be looked at. They should be understood, but they shouldn’t be taken as gospels. They are not Bibles.
Where do you think U.S.-China relations will go from here? Could a U.S.-China strategic conflict materialize as mutual distrust and tit-for-tat response escalate?
I have to say I am worried that 2018 is going to be a year with a lot of testing of the ability of Washington and Beijing to avoid mutual distrust and tit-for-tat response on several issues. The key problem obviously at the moment is the trade issues. On trade, both sides seem to think they are right, and they have the moral high ground. What may be more worrisome is both sides seem to believe they could weather any kind of trade war better than the other side could. Both sides are busy trying to figure out how they are going to retaliate, or how they are going to put things in place. The big thing to watch in the trade area is the U.S. 301 investigation on China forcing U.S. companies to transfer intellectual property and the concern that U.S. intellectual property is stolen. This is going to result in some severe U.S. trade penalties on China outside the scope of the WTO. That is something that has the potential, depending how China responds to it, to trigger a trade war. The second area I would worry about is North Korea. There is a few in the administration who think the conflict with North Korea is inevitable. Obviously, Americans’ strike on North Korea either because of provocation or for other reasons could very severely strain the tie between the United States and China. The third area I would point to in 2018 is the concern that if China were to take more substantive actions in the East and South China Sea, this of course would create tension in the relationship. I think there are dangers of escalation this year, and they need to be mitigated by high-level dialogues. One of the things I’m encouraged by is that Defense Secretary Mattis will be visiting Beijing this spring. We can make more of these kinds of dialogues happen. I think that’s very important.
Featured Image by Public Affairs Specialist 3rd Class Angela Henderson (Released) via Wikimedia Commons.