Former Secretary of State Dean Acheson titled his memoir “Present at the Creation” to highlight his contribution to the world-shaping foreign policy decisions made by President Harry Truman when the wartime alliance with the Soviet Union turned into open competition over the future of Europe and China fell under Communist control.
A similar set of challenges now faces President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, whose recent visit to North Korea and China provided evidence of renewed difficulties with both countries. With U.S.- Russia relations already deeply chilled, some commentators have suggested that the nation is on the brink of a new Cold War with its old antagonists Russia and China. Mr. Pompeo, among other top administration officials, must come up with major new approaches to strengthen our position and that of our allies.
China is now the more formidable of the two traditional American adversaries. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama chose to build a constructive relationship with its rulers, recognizing the close interdependence of the Chinese and American economies, and the disruptions that could occur if a serious rift developed.
President Trump started off down the same road, lavishly entertaining Chinese President Xi Jinping and seeking his help to persuade North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to turn away from nuclear belligerence and toward peace and promised nuclear disarmament.
But over the past two years the administration also has quietly constructed a series of measures designed to limit the nation’s perceived vulnerability to Chinese influence and power. These include new measures to make it harder for Chinese firms to gain control of U.S. companies and technology, such as the reforms enacted last summer increasing the power of the Commerce Department’s Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States, and a recent study commissioned by the White House on how U.S. dependence on foreign — mostly Chinese — suppliers for critical electronics and other materials weakens national security.
With these defensive measures in place the administration recently stepped up the pressure. It has slapped tariffs on a wide range of Chinese imports and threatens to impose more if China does not address a list of grievances about its one-way trade policies. It has stepped up naval patrols in the South China Sea in a direct challenge to China’s efforts to control a major international waterway. Vice President Mike Pence gave a speech Oct. 4 on unacceptable Chinese behavior. And on Thursday the U.S. placed new limits on exporting nuclear technology to China.
Mr. Kim predictably is doing as little as he can to advance talks on denuclearization without breaking off relations. He promised to allow international inspectors to visit North Korea’s dormant nuclear test site, publicly closed last spring. It is a seemingly empty gesture but one welcomed by experts who still have questions about how thoroughly the site was destroyed. A new meeting between President Trump and Mr. Kim is still in the works.
On arriving in Beijing from Pyongyang, Mr. Pompeo was greeted with the angry Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, who complained that Mr Trump is “ceaselessly elevating” trade tensions and “casting a shadow” over relations between the two countries on a range of issues including Taiwan. In an understatement, Mr. Pompeo replied that the United States has “a fundamental disagreement” with China on these issues.
The confrontation over these fundamental disputes is now in the open. It is going to take a major display of American determination and adroit diplomacy to shape a favorable outcome.