Overlooked during this week’s historic events in Washington, the National Security Council (NSC) on Tuesday declassified and released a 2017 document called the “U.S. 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 U.S. government action on a range of Asia-related issues. It laid out a plan for the United States to drastically upgrade its presence in Asia and expand alliances as well as to “maintain U.S. strategic primacy in the Indo-Pacific region and promote a liberal economic order while preventing China from establishing new, illiberal spheres of influence.”
The strategy was kept secret so that the Trump administration wouldn’t tip its hand. So why release it now, just days before the transition of power and amid several crises? The officials who crafted and believed in it wanted to make sure Americans knew the strategy existed — and they clearly hope the Biden administration won’t throw it in the garbage.
“The administration is coming to a close. We want the world to have the benefit of understanding what we set out to do early in 2017 and then what we actually have accomplished,” a senior administration official told me. “We’ve made some progress, but the next team really needs to carry this forward and they will certainly have a lot of challenges to confront.”
The NSC led an interagency process in 2017 to write the strategy under then-national security adviser H.R. McMaster, but its primary author was Matthew Pottinger, who later became deputy national security adviser under Robert C. O’Brien. There are actually two secret strategies, but the NSC couldn’t get the second one declassified in time. It is titled “U.S. Strategic Framework for Countering China’s Economic Aggression.”
Together, they served as internal guidance for the U.S. government and informed several subsequent documents available to the public, including the National Security Strategy, the National Defense Strategy and reports that underpinned Trump’s trade war with Beijing. Prescient in many ways, the strategy clearly articulated the growing problems with the Chinese government’s behavior, warning that Xi Jinping was taking his nation in a more authoritarian direction at home while pursuing a markedly more aggressive foreign policy. It discussed issues that are now commonplace but weren’t so well understood at the time, such as Chinese influence operations and the need to lessen our dependence on China for strategically important resources.
What went wrong? Above all else, the strategy was often ignored or undermined by the man most crucial to its success — the president. For example, the official strategy called for maximizing pressure on North Korea to “convince the Kim regime that the only path to its survival is to relinquish its nuclear weapons.” Instead, Trump negotiated away U.S. leverage in exchange for several 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 Trump’s “America First” mantra pushed the United States away from multilateral cooperation. The strategy recommended strengthening cooperation with Southeast Asian allies, but Trump couldn’t even be bothered to attend regional summits after 2017. The strategy called for strengthening defense relationships with Japan and South Korea, but Trump insisted on extorting both countries to pay for hosting U.S. troops while threatening to withdraw them. The strategy viewed Xi as an adversary, while Trump viewed him as personal friend.
Many things called for in the document did actually happen. The Trump administration did build up the “Quad,” establishing concrete cooperation among the United States, Japan, Australia and India. The administration drastically increased efforts to crack down on Chinese espionage and influence operations. More assistance eventually flowed to Taiwan. But these were precisely the efforts in which Trump had little personal involvement.
The biggest obstacle to the strategy was Trump’s persistent urge to sow deeper discord in American public life. He abused the China issue to race-bait and score political points as he ran for reelection. As Australian National University professor Rory Medcalf wrote, “In hindsight, this bold vision for U.S. foreign policy failed to take account of the depth of domestic division and dysfunction hampering America’s ability to advance its interests abroad.”
Biden’s Asia team, which will be led by former State Department official Kurt Campbell, must recognize the difference between what Trump was doing on China and what his officials were doing. The latter have left behind a smart blueprint for how to move forward. The Trump administration’s China strategy actually looks much more promising without Trump around to muck it up.