O’Brien on China: Trump’s New National Security Advisor and the Future of U.S.—China Relations

By Michael B. Cerny.

After the sudden and disputatious exit of John Bolton as White House national-security advisor, questions quickly arose in Washington about who would serve as his replacement.  Bolton’s departure was not unwelcome, with many foreign policy experts and members of the Trump administration expressing distaste for his hawkish and extreme perspectives on international affairs.  However, President Trump’s recent appointment of Robert C. O’Brien, the administration’s fourth national-security advisor in a single term, raises further questions about whether the world can expect a change in the administration’s approach to foreign policy.  In short: it’s unlikely.

Trump as the ‘Strongman’ of Foreign Policy

It is widely commented on in news media that President Trump likes to fashion himself as a strongman.  It is no secret that the President selected Bolton for the position as National Security Advisor after Bolton appeared on FoxNews to express his hardline perspectives on America’s global rivals.  Despite the numerous policy disagreements between President Trump and Bolton, such as their widely differing approaches to relations on the Korean peninsula, Bolton’s brazen hawkishness seemed to assist Trump in conveying a commanding international presence.

President Trump’s pursuit of this strongman image is what makes his recent appointment of O’Brien to national-security advisor so revealing.  Bolton came to the Cabinet Room after a long career in conservative foreign policy circles and committed to his own strategy for American foreign policy.  Unlike Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Bolton spoke his mind freely with the President, which subsequently led to his firing.  As a result, it comes as no surprise that the President has selected a, perhaps, more deferential personality to serve as national-security advisor in O’Brien.

A Los Angeles-based lawyer who previously served the Trump administration under the United States Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, O’Brien is well-connected in Republican foreign policy circles and previously worked under Bolton.  Appointed as an alternate representative to the United Nations General Assembly under the Bush administration, O’Brien was granted the rank of ambassador by the Trump Administration shortly after his appointment to Hostage Affairs.  Notably, O’Brien also served as a foreign policy campaign advisor for the Mitt Romney and Scott Walker presidential campaigns.

Analyzing O’Brien on China

Initially tapped by the Trump administration for U.S. Secretary of the Navy, O’Brien’s nomination was positively received by policy circles in Washington fearful of China’s rise.  In 2017, Harry J. Kazianas, a senior director at the Center for the National Interest, endorsed O’Brien due to their mutual concern regarding China’s threat to maritime security in the Asia Pacific.[1]  For example, in a 2011 article published by The Diplomat, O’Brien outlined his concerns about China’s rapid rise as a naval power and its implications for national and global security.[2]  O’Brien warned of China’s concerted “effort to establish itself as the supreme maritime power” in Asia through the development of anti-access/area denial capabilities, a maritime strategy that would effectively lock the United States navy out of the Asia Pacific.[3]

Highly skeptical of Chinese intentions, O’Brien argued that China’s maritime goals are to dominate natural resources and disputed islands in the South China and East China Seas, and to gain the military capacity to unify Taiwan by force.  Characterizing China as an assertive power prone to “confronting and harassing Asian and US civilian and naval ships in the region,” O’Brien has described China as aggressive and unwilling to share responsibility over the protection of international commons, such as sea lanes in the Indian Ocean and the Strait of Malacca.  Consequently, O’Brien has advocated for the expansion and refurbishment of the United States Navy to counter threats to national security and the globe.

In his other publications, O’Brien has been critical of China’s proclamation of its “peaceful rise.” He has advocated for the strengthening of the United States deterrent position in the Asia Pacific, particularly through the expansion of the Navy and by “scrupulously” honoring United States defense commitments to Asia-Pacific partners such as Australia and Japan.[4]  Sitting for an interview with The Diplomat in 2012 as an advisor to Mitt Romney’s campaign team, O’Brien explained that China should not be considered a competitor or rival, but that the United States should stand its ground against Chinese revisionism and ensure that Beijing play by the established rules of the international order.[5]

Perhaps most reflective of his personal perspective on China is O’Brien’s 2016 book While America Slept: Restoring American Leadership to a World in Crisis,[6] in which he twice compares China’s naval development to that of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s 19th century expansion of the German navy in an attempt to challenge British unipolarity.  In contrast to his statements during the Romney campaign, it is highly evident that O’Brien embraces a zero-sum perspective of competition with China, particularly in Africa. Describing East Africa as a “national security and foreign policy hot spot” for the United States, O’Brien argues that China is actively “looking to supplant the United States” by supporting “war crimes-indicted” dictators and “strongmen.”  As a result, O’Brien concludes that the United States should continue to “compete with China diplomatically and commercially” in Africa, particularly through African disease aid, such as anti-HIV/AIDs and anti-malarial programs. [7] O’Brien’s support for disease assistance is worth note, because the current administration has previously sought to cut aid to Africa in these areas.

In published sources, O’Brien’s discussion of cooperation with China on America’s global policy and business frontiers is thin.  Particularly skeptical of Chinese intentions in Africa, O’Brien also fears a pivot by Chinese naval forces in the South Atlantic that would threaten national security.  For example, he contended that China’s 2015 decision to anchor a naval frigate in Namibia’s Walvis Bay was a strategic choice that indicates a broader strategy by China to dominate the South Atlantic.  O’Brien underscores the particular importance of Walvis Bay, arguing that its strategic relevance to the South Atlantic resulted in its capture by the British in the mid-19th century to keep it from the hands of an expanding German naval empire.[8]

Implications for U.S.-China Relations

Considering his emphasis on zero-sum competition between the United States and China, Robert C. O’Brien’s tenure as national-security advisor will almost certainly be an extension of the administration’s current hawkish stance towards the East Asian nation.  Perhaps a more positive development, however, is that O’Brien seems more willing than Bolton to account for the complex contours of great-power competition.  Instead of taking the sledgehammer to America’s rivals in the short term, O’Brien appears to prefer to grapple with the historical context of conflicts and their portents for long-term grand strategy.

With his penchant for naval history and grand strategy in Africa, it would be prudent for O’Brien to recognize that the African continent is, historically, a site for not only competition but also cooperation.  For example, the 2015 anchoring of a Chinese naval frigate in the Walvis Bay was a frigate en route to a mission in the Gulf of Aden, a maritime domain that represents a landmark site of bilateral U.S.-China anti-piracy cooperation in Africa.[9]  Furthermore, O’Brien ought to realize that German-British relations in Africa, characterized by competition and superficial cooperation, failed to avert an arms race and war in the 20th century.

O’Brien should balance his perspectives on zero-sum power competition with the need for genuine cooperation between China and the United States.  Averting an arms race and naval conflict may depend on it.

Cerny is an intern with The Carter Center China Program. The views expressed are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of The Carter Center or its associates.


[1] Kazianis, Harry J. “Why Robert C. O’Brien Would Be an Excellent Choice for Secretary of the Navy.” The National Interest. The Center for the National Interest, March 2, 2017. https://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/why-robert-c-obrien-would-be-excellent-choice-secretary-the-19646.

[2] O’Brien, Robert C. “China’s Two-Pronged Maritime Rise.” The Diplomat. The Diplomat, July 24, 2011. https://thediplomat.com/2011/07/chinas-two-pronged-maritime-rise/?allpages=yes.

[3] O’Brien, Robert C. “The Navy’s Hidden Crisis.” POLITICO Magazine, February 5, 2015. https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/02/navy-hidden-crisis-114943_Page2.html.

[4] O’Brien, Robert C. “Ensuring China’s Peaceful Rise.” The Diplomat. The Diplomat, November 19, 2011. https://thediplomat.com/2011/11/ensuring-chinas-peaceful-rise/; Hewitt, Hugh. “Romney Senior Foreign Policy Advisor, Robert C. O’Brien.” HughHewitt. Salem Media Group, August 23, 2012. https://www.hughhewitt.com/romney-senior-foreign-policy-advisor-robert-c-obrien/.

[5] Miks, Jason. “Romney the Pragmatist?” The Diplomat. The Diplomat, January 10, 2012. https://thediplomat.com/2012/01/romney-the-pragmatist/.

[6] OBrien, Robert C. While America Slept: Restoring American Leadership to a World in Crisis. New York: Encounter Books, 2016. Accessed through Google Books:  https://books.google.com/books/about/While_America_Slept.html?id=RabLDAAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=kp_read_button#v=onepage&q&f=false

[7] OBrien, Robert C. While America Slept: Restoring American Leadership to a World in Crisis. New York: Encounter Books, 2016. Accessed through Google Books: https://books.google.com/books/about/While_America_Slept.html?id=RabLDAAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=kp_read_button#v=onepage&q&f=false

[8] O’Brien, Robert C. “China’s Next Move: A Naval Base in the South Atlantic?” RealClearDefense, March 4, 2015. https://www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2015/03/25/chinas_next_move_a_naval_base_in_the_south_atlantic_107803.html.

[9] To read more, visit: http://www.andrewerickson.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Erickson-Publication_Anti-Piracy_China_Jamestown-Book_GoA-Mission_6-Years_2015_Final.pdf



  • Michael B. Cerny is the Associate Editor of the U.S.-China Perception Monitor. He is an MPhil student in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford. He graduated from Emory University with a bachelor's in Political Science and a double major in Chinese Studies. At Emory, Cerny co-founded the Emory Journal of Asian Studies and interned with The Carter Center's China Program.