Forgotten during this week’s historic events in Washington, the National Security Council (NSC) declassified on Tuesday and released a 2017 document titled US Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific. That same year, President Trump actually signed the 10-page memo, which was supposed to form the basis for the US government’s action on a range of issues related to Asia. He laid out a plan for the United States to dramatically improve its presence in Asia and expand its alliances, as well as maintain the strategic primacy of the United States in the Indo-Pacific region and promote a liberal economic order while preventing the China to establish new non-liberal spheres of influence. .
The strategy has been kept a secret so that the Trump administration does not let go. So why bring it out now, days before the power transition and in the midst of several crises? The officials who designed and believed in it wanted to make sure Americans knew about the strategy’s existence and clearly hope the Biden administration won’t throw it in the trash.
The administration is coming to an end. We want the world to have the benefit of understanding what we set out to do in early 2017 and then what we actually accomplished, a senior administration official told me. We have made progress, but the next team really needs to move forward and they will certainly have a lot of challenges to overcome.
The NSC led an interagency process in 2017 to draft the strategy under the leadership of then-National Security Advisor HR McMaster, but its lead author was Matthew Pottinger, who later became Deputy National Security Advisor under Robert C. OBrien. There are actually two secret strategies, but the NSC was unable to have the second declassified in time. It is called US Strategic Framework to Counter China’s Economic Aggression.
Together, they served as an internal guide for the U.S. government and informed several subsequent documents made available to the public, including the National security strategy, the National defense strategy and reports behind Trump’s trade war with Beijing. Prescient in many ways, the strategy clearly articulated growing problems with the behavior of the Chinese government, warning that Xi Jinping was leading his nation in a more authoritarian direction at home while pursuing a significantly more aggressive foreign policy. He discussed issues that are now common but were not so well understood at the time, such as Chinese influence operations and the need to reduce our dependence on China for strategically important resources.
What did not go well? Above all, strategy has often been ignored or undermined by the man most crucial to its success, the president. For example, the official strategy called for maximizing the pressure on North Korea to convince the Kim regime that the only way to survive is to give up its nuclear weapons. Instead, Trump negotiated US leverage in exchange for multiple photo ops with Kim Jong Un.
The strategy called for increased cooperation with regional allies on issues such as peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance and global health. But America trumps First mantra pushed back the United States multilateral cooperation. The strategy recommended stepping up cooperation with Southeast Asian allies, but Trump couldn’t even be bothered to attend regional summits after 2017. The strategy called for strengthening defense relations with Japan and China. South Korea, but Trump insisted on extort the two countries to pay to welcome American troops while threatening to withdraw them. The strategy viewed Xi as an adversary, while Trump viewed him as a personal friend.
Many of the things called for in the document actually happened. The Trump administration built the Quad, establishing concrete cooperation between the United States, Japan, Australia and India. The administration has redoubled its efforts to suppress Chinese espionage and influence operations. Further aid was eventually channeled to Taiwan. But these were precisely the efforts in which Trump had little personal involvement.
The biggest obstacle to the strategy was Trumps’ lingering need to sow deeper discord in American public life. He abused the China question to the race bait and score political points as he stood for re-election. As a professor at Australian National University Rory Medcalf wroteIn retrospect, this bold take on U.S. foreign policy failed to take into account the depth of domestic divide and dysfunction that hamper the Americas’ ability to advance their interests abroad.
The Bidens Asia team, which will be led by former State Department official Kurt Campbell, needs to recognize the difference between what Trump was doing on China and what his officials were doing. They left behind a clever plan for how to move forward. The Trump administration’s strategy in China actually looks much more promising without Trump to mess it up.
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