Robert O’Brien’s Phoenix Speech and ‘Tough on China’

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National security adviser Robert O’Brien attends a briefing in the White House in Washington, January 10, 2020. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Robert O’Brien, the president’s national-security adviser, was in Phoenix Wednesday to give remarks on the Trump administration’s China policy. He was the second White House official to visit Arizona in recent days. President Donald Trump made a swing through the state this week, and Vice President Mike Pence is slated to appear in Arizona next week.

O’Brien’s speech was policy-oriented, sounding the alarm on the Chinese Communist Party’s “threat to our way of life.” But the political context was lost on no one. Recent polling finds the president behind former vice president Joe Biden in the state. Meanwhile, Biden has responded to the Trump campaign’s attacks that he is “soft on China” in kind. The DNC released a new ad this week ripping into his record on China:

Trump said he’d get tough on China. He didn’t get tough — he got played.

Trump lost a trade war that he started.

The ad follows John Bolton’s shocking allegations that Trump endorsed Beijing’s Uighur concentration camps and asked secretary Xi Jinping to buy more soybeans to boost his reelection prospects. And in an Axios interview this week, Trump said that he held off on imposing sanctions on Chinese officials for the camps to preserve the trade deal with China. Perhaps the president would have a political leg to stand on in prioritizing the trade deal if China follows through on its obligations under Phase I of the agreement, but this looks increasingly unlikely as relations with Beijing have worsened during the coronavirus pandemic.

At the Washington Post, Josh Rogin observes a shift in Trump’s thinking on China as a result: “With no more deals in sight, Trump’s attitude shift has freed the China hawks on his team to launch a new, widespread campaign against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its ideology.”

The White House’s rhetoric on China has already been blunter than that of previous administrations, playing up the strategic competition that now defines U.S.–China relations. However, O’Brien on Wednesday previewed an aggressive focus on rooting out CCP influence in the United States, citing numerous incidents where American companies bowed to Chinese pressure. He also suggested that the administration will emphasize an ideological contest with what he called China’s “Marxist-Leninist” system in the mold of Joseph Stalin.  This marks a perhaps subtle shift in the Trump administration’s thinking that shows what things will look like with the China hawks — who prioritize these considerations over preserving the trade deal at all costs — at the helm.  

O’Brien’s deputy, Matthew Pottinger, is one of the key figures in this faction. If his speech commemorating China’s May Fourth Movement earlier this year is any indication, we might expect a greater emphasis on human-rights promotion and the dissidents who stand up to the CCP’s authoritarianism.

O’Brien said that his speech is the first in a series that will include others by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Attorney General Bill Barr, and FBI director Chris Wray. We’ll see whether the administration’s new focus on publicly communicating its China policy moves the needle electorally. But doubling down on the concept of ideological competition with the CCP, grounded in a policy of human-rights promotion, is the right approach regardless.

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