Beijing issued a muted response to news that US President Donald Trump will name China as a competitor, calling for “strategic mutual trust”, and observers say it is unlikely to make any sudden policy changes that could add to disputes with Washington.
Excerpts of the US national security strategy released by the White House ahead of Trump’s speech said competition with China and Russia required Washington to rethink policies based on the assumption that engagement with rivals and including them in international institutions “would turn them into benign actors and trustworthy partners”.
“They are determined to make economies less free and less fair, to grow their militaries, and to control information and data to repress their societies and expand their influence,” according to excerpts of the strategy, which Trump is expected to deliver at 2am on Tuesday Hong Kong time.
A senior US administration official said Russia and China were attempting to revise the global status quo – Russia in Europe with its military incursions into Ukraine and Georgia, and China in Asia by its aggression in the South China Sea.
The national security posture reflects Trump’s “America First” priorities of protecting the US homeland and borders, rebuilding the US military, projecting strength abroad and pursuing trade policies more favourable to the United States.
Despite the rhetoric, Beijing struck a mild tone in response, with foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying telling reporters on Monday that China and the US should promote “strategic mutual trust”.
Hua said bilateral relations between the two countries – especially economic and trade – were mutually beneficial, and that China was willing to work with the United States to build “resilient, stable and healthy” economic ties.
Teng Jianqun, director of US studies at the China Institute of International Studies, said Trump was “playing the same old tune” with talk of strategic competitors.
“Cooperation, as well as competition, has intensified – there’s no need to overreact. The US has seen China as one of its biggest rivals since the end of cold war,” he said.
Lu Xiang, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said both China and the US would be wary of confrontations given the scale of their economic ties.
“Trump has yet to form his major foreign policies. China’s global influence is rising and it is understandable that the US is concerned about it,” Lu said. “Both countries will be extremely cautious given their economic and trade links.”
Trump’s stance on China marks a stark contrast to that of his predecessor Barack Obama. Laying out his national security strategy in 2015, Obama said that while there was competition between China and the US, his administration rejected “the inevitability of confrontation” and noted that “the scope of cooperation with China is unprecedented”.
Washington has taken a tough line on China in the past few months despite Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping insisting their relationship is strong. The US in August launched a formal investigation into alleged Chinese intellectual property theft and unfair trade practices.
This month it told the World Trade Organisation it opposed giving China market economy status, and joined the European Union and Japan to confront China over trade protectionism. That came after the Commerce Department launched a self-initiated anti-dumping investigation into Chinese aluminium products.
Washington has also announced rounds of sanctions against Chinese individuals and companies doing business with Pyongyang to press Beijing to exert more pressure on North Korea over its nuclear weapons programme.
“There is consensus in Washington that China’s economic policy is unfair and there are violations of many WTO and bilateral commitments. The previous governments, despite a lot of negotiations and dialogues, have not solved the problem,” said Scott Kennedy, deputy director of the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
“In the coming months, we are going to see a lot of rhetoric translate into actions that try to push China to address the concerns of the US in economic policies.”
China said it would further open its financial markets shortly after Trump wrapped up his three-day visit to Beijing last month, but it has yet to release any details.
Kennedy said the US would not accept “partial promises” and instead wanted “a fundamental change in the direction of economic policy in China”.
Tao Wenzhao, an international relations expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said China would emphasise cooperation with the US in its efforts to manage their differences.