Trump ‘America First’ Plan Sees China, Russia as U.S. Frenemies

Updated on
  • Trump describes the countries as both rivals and partners
  • ‘Weakness is the surest path to conflict’ president says
Bloomberg’s Marty Schenker and Nick Wadhams react to President Trump’s foreign policy speech.

President Donald Trump called Russia and China “rival powers” to the U.S. but said he’ll continue to try to partner with them as he outlined a muscular foreign policy that attempts to turn his “America First” campaign pledge into statecraft.

Trump’s first official national security strategy is in some ways little different from those of his predecessors. Its four broad goals -- to protect Americans and their homeland, promote national prosperity, preserve “peace through strength” and advance American influence -- are essentially noncontroversial.

U.S. President Donald Trump

Photographer: Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool via Bloomberg

But Trump departed from former President Barack Obama in declining to maintain climate change as a national security threat, and to a greater extent than his immediate predecessor, he fused economic and military threats.

Growth in gross domestic product is “one of America’s greatest weapons” Trump said, declaring that past U.S. leaders he didn’t name had failed to effectively protect U.S. interests in areas including trade, defense and counter-terrorism.

“For many years, our citizens watched as Washington politicians presided over one disappointment after another,” Trump said in a speech to military and homeland security officials in Washington. “Our leaders in Washington negotiated disastrous trade deals that brought massive profits to many foreign nations but sent thousands of American factories and millions of American jobs to those other countries.”

At points, Trump’s speech struck a different tone than the official document that was released by the White House outlining his “America first” foreign policy -- especially in his discussion of Russia and China.

The strategy document takes a tough line on Russia, accusing the country of trying to undermine “the legitimacy of democracies.” In his remarks, Trump called Russia a rival but also described the country as a potential partner.

He noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin had called him Sunday to thank him for information the CIA shared that helped to thwart an alleged terror attack planned for St. Petersburg.

“That is the way it’s supposed to work,” Trump said.

Strategic Competitors

Trump said that China seeks “to challenge American influence, values, and wealth.” But he did not call the country a “strategic competitor,” as senior administration officials said he would the day before the speech.

“Any nation that ends up trading its prosperity for security will end up losing both,” Trump said. “We recognize that weakness is the surest path to conflict and unrivaled power is the most certain means of defense.”

The strategy document makes one reference to “strategic competitors” without specifically applying the term to China. Former President George W. Bush used the phrase to describe China when he initially took office. The Chinese found the term deeply offensive and lobbied Washington to drop the phrase, which it eventually did.

But the document does accuse China of unfair trade practices that put the U.S. at a disadvantage.

China’s embassy in Washington called Trump’s speech “contradictory,” saying the U.S. wants to develop a partnership for cooperation while also viewing China as a rival.

“Putting one’s own interest above that of others and the international community is complete selfishness which will lead to self isolation,” the embassy said in a statement.

‘You Win I Lose’

China’s official Xinhua News Agency issued a commentary in response to Trump’s speech entitled “The U.S. Should Give Up ‘You-Win-I-Lose’ Mentality.” It urged Trump to shift his stance and called on the U.S. to take more global responsibilities.

While the president did not outline potential economic actions that could target China during his speech, other U.S. officials have signaled a shift from the more conciliatory approach Trump has taken with Chinese President Xi Jinping since being elected a year ago.

“We are in economic competition with China,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on the “Fox News Sunday” program. “This isn’t about trade wars. This is about reciprocal fair trade. And if we have to protect American workers and put on tariffs or other things, where they don’t have fair trade with us, the president will do that.”

Nuclear Threat

Trump has had to balance his zeal to confront China over its trade practices with his need for Xi’s support in combating North Korea’s nuclear threat.

During his speech, Trump called on U.S. allies to increase pressure on North Korea to further isolate the country and achieve denuclearization.

“This situation should have been taken care of long before I got into office, when it was much easier to handle,” Trump said Monday. “But it will be taken care of. We have no choice.”

Trump, who has also sought Russian help to pressure North Korea, did not mention the country’s attempt to interfere with the 2016 U.S. election. The strategy document said Russia “interferes in the domestic political affairs of countries around the world” and “uses information operations as part of its offensive cyber efforts to influence public opinion” -- including through social media “trolls.”

Special Counsel Robert Mueller is investigating possible links between Trump’s campaign and the Russian influence operation during the 2016 election.

— With assistance by Anthony Capaccio, Peter Martin, and Ting Shi

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