Peter Berkowitz, director of policy planning at the State Department, recently defended the Donald Trump administration’s foreign policy, saying that people who accused the president of being a unilateralist or isolationist have misunderstood how multilateralism works.
At the center of Trump’s multilateral approach was his method of dealing with challenges posed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), said Berkowitz during a Nov. 30 discussion hosted by the Washington-based think tank Hudson Institute.
He began by explaining that for most people, “when they say multilateralism, they mean, United Nations supremacy. That means submission to whatever is decided, whatever the majority of the [U.N.] General Assembly believes.”
Trump has been accused of acting unilaterally after pulling the United States out of international accords and organizations, such as the U.N. Human Rights Council. In October, China drew international criticism after winning a seat at the council, despite its grim human rights record.
Berkowitz then elaborated on what he believed the concept really meant: “a many-sided foreign policy or working with a variety of other countries.”
To that end, Trump’s China policy has “embraced dissidents. He has called attention to the outrageous abuses of human rights in China … the United States has prosecuted espionage and the stealing of trade secrets by China. We have taken tough stances in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait,” Berkowitz said.
In working with other countries, Berkowitz said the Trump administration has “revivified America’s friends and partners” in Asia, as evident by strong ties between the United States and India, and the Quad framework between Australia, India, Japan, and the United States, he said. All four partners are committed to “promoting commerce and defending a free and open Indo-Pacific,” he added.
The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or simply known colloquially as the Quad, was initiated in 2007 by then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Last month, the four Quad members held their annual joint military exercise, known as Malabar, in the Bay of Bengal.
Berkowitz also mentioned a recent State Department report put together by his team, which outlined China’s threats to international order.
“China doesn’t merely seek preeminence within the established international order … China seeks to transform that order in a way that places Beijing in the center and serves China’s authoritarian interests,” he said.
To fulfill its ambition of global dominance, the CCP has sought to “induce a kind of dependence in states around the world,” according to Berkowitz.
Many developing countries are saddled with Chinese debt after they took up loans under Beijing’s foreign policy project, known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI, also known as One Belt, One Road). The Chinese regime rolled out BRI in 2013, with the aim of building Beijing’s geopolitical influence along trade routes linking China, Southeast Asia, Africa, and Europe.
In 2017, Sri Lanka handed over control of its key port of Hambantota to Beijing via a 99-year lease, after it was unable to pay off over $1 billion in debt for the BRI port project.
“[T]he Chinese Communist Party is a predator,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a trip to Sri Lanka last month, pointing to China’s poor business deals and “violations of sovereignty and lawlessness on land and sea.”
The BRI also allowed the CCP to “corrupt elites, political and intellectual leads” in these countries, according to Berkowitz. Recent scandals in Malaysia’s 1MDB state investment fund have been linked to Chinese officials.
China has also sought to undermine “freedom and openness” in democratic systems, Berkowitz said, such as influencing U.S. campuses through its Confucius Institutes, under the guise of Chinese language and culture programs.
“Ultimately, the Confucius Institutes work not in the spirit of a university, but in the spirit of a propaganda arm of the party [Chinese Communist Party] back home,” Berkowitz said.
Confucius Institutes have come under U.S. scrutiny in recent years for canceling events or silencing discussion on topics that are politically sensitive to the Chinese regime. In August, the State Department designated a Washington-based center that promotes Confucius Institutes in the United States as a foreign mission.
Berkowitz also offered suggestions for what the United States should do, so that the international order will not reflect “the authoritarian proclivities of the Chinese Communist Party.”
“We have to preserve our constitutional traditions. We need a strong economy that nevertheless looks out for those who suffer the most from the consequences of globalization,” he said, while promoting a civil society where religious freedom is protected.
The White House could be planning new action against Beijing. According to a Nov. 23 report from the Wall Street Journal, citing an unnamed senior official, the White House was planning to create an informal alliance of Western nations that would jointly retaliate when the regime throws its economic weight to pressure countries.