If the polls hold, Donald Trump will begin his second term as president of the United States in eight months. Trump made China policy a top priority in his 2016 campaign and during his first term in the White House. Should he re-enter it in 2025, he will again. The former president, however, has yet to establish a unified foreign policy roster, leaving open to speculation how his prospective administration might confront, compete with, or even accommodate the giant across the Pacific.

Trump has long projected hostility toward China’s industrial and trade practices, but his posture has not translated to consistent strategic or defense policies. As a result, contenders from several conflicting foreign policy schools are jockeying for influence. On the China question, Trump’s leading candidates for vice president, secretary of state, and national security advisor can be understood as inhabiting three camps: the “freedom fighters,” the “disentanglers,” and the “conservative realists.” These groups agree that China is a threat but diverge beyond that point.

The freedom fighters are Republicans who champion American ideals abroad. Since Ronald Reagan’s presidency in the 1980s, they have held the inside track for foreign policy jobs whenever a Republican occupies the Oval Office. Trump’s first-term cabinet featured several freedom fighters, and some may be on the shortlist for premier posts again, including Mike Pompeo, Trump’s final Secretary of State, and Robert C. O’Brien, his final national security advisor.

Matt Pottinger, a deputy national security advisor under Trump, and Mike Gallagher, the former chairman of the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, crystalized the freedom-fighter outlook on China in an April essay for Foreign Affairs. America, Pottinger and Gallagher argued, must confront China with full-throated conviction over its human rights abuses and destabilizing behavior, just as Reagan confronted the Soviet Union 40 years ago.

Freedom fighters often suggest that the Chinese Communists must be toppled to secure peace in the Indo-Pacific. Pottinger and Gallagher, for example, insisted that the United States “shouldn’t manage competition with China; it should win it,” adding that American victory would entail the Chinese people finding “inspiration to explore new models of development and governance.” Pompeo, described by one Washington insider as “the easiest and best answer” to the question of whom Trump should pick as his vice president, inveighed in a 2020 speech that, “General Secretary Xi is not destined to tyrannize inside and outside of China forever, unless we allow it.”

They are loath to admit it, but the freedom fighters share some key premises with the Biden White House. Both see the U.S. and China as locked in a values-based conflict. While freedom fighters put less stock than does the Biden administration in international organizations’ China-restraining role, both see Beijing as anchoring a global network hostile to democracy proliferation that includes Russia, Iran, and North Korea as junior partners. Both think the U.S. has a Wilsonian duty to defeat that network and to support freedom-pursuing peoples across the globe, like the Taiwanese and Ukrainians.

By contrast, the disentanglers share Trump’s disposition: a pugnacious Jacksonianism that flies the America First banner. Senator J.D. Vance (R-OH) and entrepreneur-cum-political candidate Vivek Ramaswamy hail from this camp, whose proponents argue that America should minimize points of contact with China and rethink its forward defense posture in Asia.

Vance, for example, voices the disentangler view that “China should not make our stuff, and we should try to avoid war with China.” Ramaswamy similarly has suggested that the U.S. should re-shore as much industrial production as possible to reduce the necessity of fighting a war with China over disputes like Taiwan. He even laid out a specific timeline for potential U.S. defense of Taiwan, beyond which he would presumably counsel against American intervention.

Trump is pushing 80, but the disentanglers skew younger. It is perhaps not coincidental that neither Vance nor Ramaswamy is old enough to have formative memories of the Cold War. For the disentanglers, the foreign policy failures of the George W. Bush era loom large. The New York Times listed Vance and Ramaswamy alongside fellow disentangler Tucker Carlson among plausible Trump VP picks in April.

The third camp, and the least understood, is that of the conservative realists, who stress the importance of power dynamics in international affairs. Elbridge Colby best articulates this outlook. Colby, who authored the Pentagon’s 2018 National Security Strategy during the first Trump administration, is perhaps now the frontrunner for national security advisor. His 2021 book, The Strategy of Denial, presents an argument that defies both the freedom fighters and disentanglers.

Colby’s case is that Asia is the economic heart of the twenty-first century, that China will naturally aspire to dominate the region, and that the U.S. cannot let it achieve that aim. He argues that the cardinal goal of America’s grand strategy should be to deny China primacy in Asia, not by maintaining U.S. dominance—contra the freedom fighters—but by forming and maintaining an anti-hegemonic coalition that balances against the Chinese Mainland. 

Freedom fighters like Gallagher, Pottinger, Pompeo, and others trace China’s antagonism to its ideas. Colby and the conservative realists, by contrast, believe that China is animated by an inevitable, nonideological pursuit of power. Even if China were not ruled by an authoritarian party, Colby maintains, Beijing would be America’s main challenger due to its economic heft and continental scale. 

Conservative realists share the disentanglers’ skepticism of overcommitting American resources to Ukraine’s defense against Russia, but their agreement does not extend much further. Unlike the Jacksonians, the Hamiltonian Colby wants to uphold a globalized economic framework by guaranteeing the security of allies and partners in Asia, the world’s foremost productive region.

Given the number of foreign policy jobs that will open up should Trump defeat Biden in November, representatives from each camp likely will earn key appointments and facetime with the president. That would be salutary. Though their recommendations will be at odds, each faction brings forth important considerations and ties to a venerable American foreign policy heritage. The freedom fighters emphasize America’s history of idealism, the disentanglers the risks of hubris, and the conservative realists the hard facts of power. But, of course, getting a seat at the table will be the easy part. The hard part will be winning over the president.

Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images


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