Trump’s New China Policy: The Flynn Factor

December 15, 2016 | 1:36 pm
Gregory Kulacki
East Asia Project Manager

In a recent interview, President-elect Trump confirmed what UCS anticipated in the first post of its China Transition Watch; that the Nixon-Kissinger era in US – China relations, established on the basis of the “one China policy,” is coming to a close. The question now is what comes next.

The answer to that question depends on who crafts and conducts US foreign policy in the Trump administration. The president-elect said he learned about the controversial call with Republic of China (ROC) President Tsai Ing-wen only “an hour or two” before it happened. We now know the call was planned months in advance and was the product of an aggressive lobbying effort.

If the call is any indication of how President Trump intends to manage consequential decisions on US-China relations, his foreign policy advisors are likely to play a decisive role.

The Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of State and the National Security Advisor direct many of the human, technological and fiscal resources involved in the formation and execution of US foreign policy. Although it now appears that retired General James Mattis may become the Secretary of Defense and Exxon-Mobile CEO Rex Tillerson may become the Secretary of State, both prospective nominees need to be confirmed by the Senate before assuming office.

Lt. General Michael T. Flynn, Mr. Trump’s choice for National Security Advisor, does not. So it is worth examining his views on world affairs and how they might influence the course of US-China relations.

Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn (far right) greets Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe with President-elect Donald Trump during the prime minister's visit to Trump Tower shortly after the US election.

Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn (far right) greets Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe with President-elect Donald Trump during the prime minister’s visit to Trump Tower shortly after the US election.

“Informed” Intelligence ?

Mr. Flynn is a retired US intelligence officer who believes China is part of a “working coalition” of state and non-state actors composed of  “jihadis, Communists and garden variety tyrants.” He also believes the United States is engaged in “a world war” against this collection of bad actors, who Flynn believes are bound together by a shared hatred of “the West.”

China does not appear to play a major military role in this war. The principal enemy is something Flynn describes as “radical Islam” and he identifies Iran and Russia as its two most important sources of state support. He described China’s involvement as “more of an economic issue.” Flynn did write that his experience as a young military officer with the 25th Infantry Division brought him into contact with “a wide swath” of enemies in the Asia-Pacific who he believes are still out there. But these Asian enemies are unidentified and receive scant attention in his 2016 best selling book, The Field of Fight.

In a discussion of the book at the Heritage Foundation Flynn singled out the Beijing-based Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as a cause for concern. He described it as “a partnership that China and Russia just signed” that is “anti-American” and “anti-Western.” Flynn did not seem to realize it was officially founded by six nations more than 15 years ago and that eight other nations have varying degrees of semi-official representation as of 2015. There is no anti-Western or anti-American language in the SCO charter, which expresses support for the United Nations, international law, the prevention and peaceful resolution of international conflict, disarmament and arms control, cultural exchanges and global economic cooperation. Moreover, one function of the SCO is cooperation on anti-terrorism measures, which, presumably, would make the member nations of the SCO allies in combatting Flynn’s “radical Islam.”

Flynn warned the Senate Armed Services Committee that China has 800,000 “cyber warriors,” a figure that strains credulity. He also told the committee China was spending more than twice as much on its military as it publishes in its official budget—an estimate significantly higher than those published by the US Department of Defense and credible independent observers. Exaggeration is not a trait normally associated with a trained intelligence officer but Lt. Gen. Flynn does it quite often. During the campaign, for example, he warned an audience about the “strategic threat” of demographic changes in the US population, which he claimed had “tripled since 1950.” (It hasn’t.) This was not a slip of the tongue. He said it twice, just before arguing that the word “progressive” is a “politically correct way of saying socialist” and just after claiming Democratic Party state legislators tried to impose Islamic law on the citizens of Florida.

The Clash of Civilizations: Who is the Enemy?

Flynn makes repeated references to the Chinese military strategist Sun Zi (545-460 BC) in his book and in his public remarks, most frequently in regard to distinguishing friends from enemies. Flynn believes Sun Zi’s most important admonition was to “know your enemy.” Understanding who Flynn thinks he is fighting in his “world war” requires us to imagine what could possibly tie together Middle Eastern jihadists, the Chinese and US progressives.

Flynn explained to US journalist Charlie Rose that in his view the United States is facing a “moral, social and cultural” threat more than a military one. What ties Flynn’s disparate collation of adversaries together is their supposed rejection of “the West,'” a term Flynn uses interchangeably with both “American” and “Judeo-Christian” culture. Flynn, it seems, thinks the United States is in a global struggle to defend Western civilization from its enemies, both foreign and domestic.

Flynn’s conception of the world as an arena of competing cultures fits within a strain of US foreign policy analysis that emerged from Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington‘s seminal 1993 article in Foreign Affairs on The Clash of Civilizations. Huntington argued that “world politics was entering a new phase” where “the great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural.” In this new phase the “centerpiece” of international politics is “the interaction between the West and non-Western civilizations.” Huntington argued nations that did not join “the West” were coalescing around a “Confucian-Islamic connection that has emerged to challenge Western interests, values and power.”

In a best-selling book on the same theme Huntington broadened his analysis by connecting foreign policy to domestic politics. He warned that “the West” was going through “a universal stage of decay” characterized by “moral decline, cultural suicide and political disunity.” This decline was brought on by a “small but influential number of intellectuals and publicists” who advanced “a multicultural trend” in the wake of “the civil rights acts of the 1960s” that made “the encouragement of diversity one of its major goals.” This elite also promoted “multi-civilizational economic integration plans” like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) pact.

Huntington compared this liberal internationalist elite to Marxists for promoting a “universalist” ideology that sought to subordinate human cultures to the social, economic and political forces of globalization.

He believed this elite effort to promote multiculturalism at home and universalism abroad was doomed to fail, and if the United States continued to promote it Western civilization would inevitably fall to the more dynamic non-Western cultures resisting globalization. This is the same fear that animates Lt. Gen. Flynn, and is a fear that brought a surprising number of non college-educated whites, Christians and nationalists to the polls to support Mr. Trump, who ran on a zero-sum foreign policy that promised to put “America first.”

Implications for US China Policy

An important motivation for the US “one China policy” that Trump put up for negotiation was the expectation that “engagement” with China would eventually transform the communist regime into a “responsible stakeholder” in a US-centric international order. The Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” was a hedge against a potentially irresponsible China seeking to upset that order. But the pivot policy also held on to the hope that change would eventually come to China.

In contast, Trump’s world view appears closer to Huntington’s. He may deal with China but he won’t engage it with the expectation or objective of changing it.

Flynn has little experience dealing with the “Confucian” members of the anti-Western, anti-American axis he believes he is fighting. One consequence may be that Flynn will be inclined to subordinate the economic and security needs of Japan and other US Asian allies to what he perceives to be more urgent concerns in other parts of the world. Trump has already signaled he expects Japan and other Asian nations to pay more to sustain the US military.

Neither man displays an understanding or special interest in Asian peoples or cultures. Nor do they see the need to keep Asians invested in the idea of global economic integration. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a global trade agreement President Obama argued was needed to prevent China from controlling Asian commerce, will go forward under President Trump without US participation, if it goes forward at all.

The President-elect introduced his choice for National Security Advisor as “one of the country’s foremost experts on military and intelligence matters.” Flynn’s expertise in Asia, however, is clearly lacking.

Huntington predicted that the United States would be unable to prevent Chinese dominance in Asia. It is unclear if Flynn and Trump would agree. What does seem clear is that both see China as an implacable adversary in a divided world rather than a potential partner in the construction and maintenance of a global community.

That’s a seismic shift in US foreign policy that could force US Asian allies into choosing sides; a choice they’d rather not have to make. It could also increase animosities between the United States and China, and between Asian nations, that produce self-fulfilling prophecies and prevent them from working together.

About the author

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Gregory Kulacki collects information and conducts analysis on security problems in East Asia. He uses that information and analysis to facilitate constructive dialogue between scientists, scholars and legislators from the United States, China, Japan and South Korea who seek solutions to security problems that do not depend on the use or threat to use nuclear weapons.