The Departure of John Bolton Won’t Affect US Policy Towards China

(Photo by Evan Vucci, AP)

by Rob La Terza

President Trump fired his famously hawkish National Security Advisor John Bolton on September 10. This move, although dramatic, may not create much change in US policy towards China.

Removing Bolton is unlikely to affect Trump’s trade conflict with China, as the roots of the trade conflict were planted long before Trump was elected President. The conflict began before Bolton became National Security Advisor, and while Bolton supported the trade conflict, he was not an integral part of the administration’s trade efforts. President Trump seems to have a good relationship with his trade policy team led by Robert Lighthizer, Steve Mnuchin and Peter Navarro.

During his 17-month tenure, Bolton failed to make a significant impact in Trump’s foreign policy. Bolton proposed aggressive action on the issues of the day, notably advocating for war with North Korea, Iran, and Venezuela [1]. Despite his best efforts, Bolton’s accomplishments were limited to stopping a potential partial nuclear disarmament deal with North Korea [2]. Bolton’s role in stopping the proposed Afghanistan withdrawal is up for debate, as he was eventually shut out of all work related to it. President Trump responded to most of Bolton’s recommendations by stonewalling him, as Trump favored getting out of existing wars over engaging in new conflicts. This stonewalling reached its peak when Trump completely shut Bolton out of Afghanistan peace and withdrawal talks out of fear that Bolton would somehow sabotage the negotiations. The overall picture of Bolton’s tenure as National Security Advisor presents the impression that Trump had little patience or regard for Bolton and would rather ignore him than accept his input.

With that context in mind, it is unlikely that Bolton was able to effect significant change on Trump’s China policy. In a December 2018 speech at the Washington think tank The Heritage Foundation, Bolton laid out the Trump administration’s Africa strategy, which also presented the US perspective on China’s engagement in Africa [3]. While Bolton’s speech explicitly condemned China as a predatory lender and claimed that China is attempting to build political, economic, and military power to challenge US dominance, it also called for less US military involvement in Africa rather than more. Decreasing military engagement is an atypical strategy for Bolton, who has advocated for greater use of American military power throughout his career. The administration’s strategy as laid out in Bolton’s speech is to compete with China economically via trade deals with individual African nations and through conditional aid to African nations that support US strategic goals. The plan called for less US involvement in UN peacekeeping missions and for the US to limit its bilateral security support to nations that are “responsible regional stakeholders.” Under the Trump administration’s plan, the US should only act unilaterally if failing to act would result in state failure or weakness that directly threatened the US.

Commentators have predicted that Bolton’s removal will strengthen Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s hand in the administration [4]. Unlike Bolton, whose views often clashed with Trump’s, Pompeo is known for his consistent support of Trump’s preferred policies. Considering Trump’s oft-expressed penchant for loyalty from his staff, Trump will likely choose someone willing to fall in line as his next National Security Advisor. As such, US policy towards China will continue to depend on Trump’s whims rather than input from his advisors.

Rob La Terza is an intern in The Carter Center’s China Program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not represent those of The Carter Center. 

[1] Ewing, Philip. “Trump Fires John Bolton In Final Break After Months Of Internal Policy Division.” NPR. NPR, September 10, 2019.

[2] The Washington Post Editorial Board. “John Bolton’s Legacy: Chaos, Dysfunction and No Meaningful Accomplishments.” The Washington Post. WP Company, September 10, 2019.

[3] “Remarks by National Security Advisor Ambassador John R. Bolton on the The Trump Administration’s New Africa Strategy.” The White House. The United States Government, December 13, 2018.

[4] Samuels, Brett, and Olivia Beavers. “Five Takeaways on Trump’s Ouster of John Bolton.” TheHill. The Hill, September 11, 2019.