Recognizing the great implications of America's escalating showdown with China, President Trump is right to cancel Defense Secretary Jim Mattis' planned trip to China.
The trip was canceled after Beijing refused to commit to a senior official meeting with Mattis, and alongside broader U.S.-Chinese tensions. According to the Washington Examiner's Jamie McIntyre, a Chinese warship recently came within 45 feet of a U.S. destroyer transiting international waters. The U.S. and China also remain locked in an escalating trade war.
Yet ancient Chinese strategic theory explains why the U.S. is right to push back against China in all these spheres. As the ancient Chinese general Sun Tzu observed, a general should "walk in the path defined by rule, and accommodate yourself to the enemy until you can fight a decisive battle." Sun Tzu's words illuminate China's contemporary strategy of appearing to accommodate the U.S. on certain issues while depleting America's economic advantage, military power, and political influence.
It's a clever gambit, and one that the Obama administration fell for. Consider the Chinese commitment to the Paris climate accords. Winning significant gratitude from former President Barack Obama, China agreed to begin trying to reduce its carbon emissions starting in 2030. But there was no commitment beyond a commitment to try and do something. The same is true of China's approach to international economics. In China's offer of vast investments, for example, we see Beijing pretend to offer a world of shared and greater growth. China neglects to mention that its investments come with the expectation of political submission and alongside its systemic intellectual property theft.
This speaks to the deeper reality: As China's people know, and as Vietnam and African nations are learning, China is no ally of humanity.
Unless China is constantly challenged in its destabilizing actions, Beijing will come to dominate an international system in which economic cronyism replaces the democratic rule of law. Correspondingly, Trump must contest Beijing at every juncture where it seeks to displace American power. The key here is not to dominate China or restrain its growth, but rather to ensure that China's growth occurs within the existing international system. A system that leans toward freedom of movement, territorial integrity, free and fair commerce, and individual freedom.
Ultimately, this is going to be generational struggle that involves new alliances and constant challenges. But if we want a more prosperous future, the feud with China is not one the U.S. can lose.