(Originally published here on September 1, 2020 in South China Morning Post.)
When US President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, discussed China with the Atlantic Council’s Paula Dobriansky last week, he let slip something unusual for an administration that otherwise projects nothing but confidence about its chances for a second term.
“Whether [Trump] has a successor in a few months or in a few years, we’re leading the way so that America can stand up to China and maintain our way of life and defend against these pernicious attacks,” he said, referring to militarisation of the South China Sea, assaults on Hong Kong’s democracy activists, intellectual property theft and multiple other areas in which Washington and Beijing are clashing.
From China’s perspective, the significance isn’t so much in O’Brien’s acknowledgement that a second Trump term is far from assured as much as his overall thesis about the determination of the US to counter Beijing’s internationally disputed claim to nearly the entire South China Sea.
O’Brien didn’t stop at calling the claim “ridiculous”. He cast Washington’s resolve to keep the South China Sea international territory as part of a seven-decade resistance to “Stalinist” authoritarianism, specifically calling out Russia and China as the world’s chief antagonists in this continuing struggle.
The comments were as much a rebuke of his boss’ attempts to boost Russian President Vladimir Putin’s standing on the world stage as they were of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s determination to plant the Chinese flag on everything within the nine-dash line, including Taiwan.
As a career diplomat who has served under Republican and Democratic presidents, O’Brien represents the underlying goals of a State Department and US intelligence community that seeks to protect the post-World War II order even as Trump attempts to undermine it with diatribes against the likes of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other European leaders, who stand for liberal democratic governance
Trump and his campaign go so far as to portray “antifa” as domestic terrorism, ignoring the fact that antifascism is at the core of the American post-war vision that O’Brien was articulating.
Just hours after O’Brien spoke, Trump lashed out at demonstrators in Washington, who gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to demand racial equality in the wake of yet another police shooting of an unarmed black man. Trump called them “anarchists”, “agitators” and “thugs”.
The similarities between Trump’s assessment of those calling for criminal justice reform in the US and the Chinese government’s view of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong don’t bother his base. They have largely detached themselves from the history that O’Brien spoke of, preferring instead Trump’s nativist and racist dog-whistling.
Beijing can only surmise that they have a kindred spirit in Trump, holding out the possibility of a rapprochement once election 2020 is over. They’re familiar enough with Trump to know that he will ditch even his closest associates if that suits his pique. White House trade adviser Peter Navarro and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, two of his administration’s fiercest China hawks, could be just as expendable as former White House adviser Steve Bannon if Trump gets a second term.
Trump knows that a settling of some key grievances with Beijing, even if this doesn’t lead to a full restoration of the relationship as it was before his term, would be much better for the economy and stock portfolios than continued escalation of tensions around issues such as democracy in Hong Kong, which are more remote in the minds of most Americans.
But until the election, Trump will need to keep his anti-China messaging on full blast and portray Biden as China’s ally.
As with other claims by the administration – such as that the US is leading the coronavirus pandemic fight, even though its per capita Covid-19 death rate is the fourth-highest among the world’s 20 most-infected countries – nothing could be further from the truth.
The evidence starts with Trump himself. He said two weeks ago that China’s massive purchases of US agricultural goods were done “to keep me happy”.
Beijing had better keep the purchases going and offer some more concessions that would help Trump. Otherwise, they can expect a White House that’s much more committed to the struggle that O’Brien spoke so passionately about.