Elephants in the Room

The NSS and the China Challenge

The president and his team deserve credit for formulating a coherent, cohesive approach to battling Beijing.

President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Nov. 9. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Nov. 9. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images)

Today’s release of the National Security Strategy (NSS) represents a partial calibration of Donald Trump’s worldview with the real world he has encountered since becoming president. As such, there will be elements that simply do not sound like him, and elements that sound far too much like him for friends and allies to be comfortable. The reality is that initial NSS documents almost always do represent an awkward transition from campaigning to governing. As such, they are transitional — important, but not the last word on U.S. strategy. Indeed, the administration’s policy on human rights, trade, and multilateral institutions may all look very different in a few years’ time from what is articulated in today’s NSS. However, there is one element in this NSS that represents a clear departure from the past and may well inform American strategic thinking well into the future: the emphasis on great power competition with China.

Every president’s first NSS since the end of the Cold War has been premised somehow on great power condominium. George H. W. Bush’s March 1990 NSS argued that the Cold War would be followed by “multipolarity and interdependence.” Bill Clinton’s first NSS anticipated a strategy of “enlargement and engagement” in which major powers would come together to help reduce the risks and burdens of American leadership. George W. Bush’s first NSS in the wake of 9-11, argued that “the world’s great powers find ourselves on the same side.” And Barack Obama’s first NSS highlighted the promise of moving beyond geopolitics as the United States engaged China on transnational challenges such as climate change.

Almost every one of these presidents found their vision for great power condominium somehow foiled by China: George H. W. Bush was undercut by Tiananmen; Clinton had to respond to the 1995-1996 Taiwan crisis by strengthening the U.S.-Japan alliance; and Obama woke up to find the Peoples Liberation Army building airbases on coral reefs across the South China Sea. Only George W. Bush managed to sustain a consistent China policy, but the 2008 financial crisis shook its foundation at the end of his term. Trump’s NSS is the first to start out anticipating the China challenge — an easier intellectual leap in the wake of Xi Jinping’s triumphalist 19th Party Congress in October 2017 to be sure — but one that will likely shape American strategic thinking for some time to come.

Yet while the NSS identification of great-power competition will likely endure, the ways and means associated with that strategy remain flawed or incomplete and will have to evolve or change. The first shortcoming in means is implicit in the third of the four NSS pillars, “peace through strength,” which emphasizes shifting towards a strategy of denial vis-à-vis adversaries. This is an expensive (if necessary) proposition, particularly given China’s growing military reach in the Western Pacific. The NSS addresses that shortcoming by promising more predictable defense spending. It will be critical that the administration carry this message to Congress.

The second shortcoming in ways and means is the utter lack of a coherent trade strategy. The NSS identifies the problem posed by China’s aggressive economic policies, but the solution set is far too unilateral. The administration will rightly roll out a series of punitive duties against China for forced technology transfer and intellectual property violations in the coming months, and then Beijing will retaliate against major U.S. firms. What then?

The answer has to be concerted pressure on China in conjunction with our allies. There was a hint of what is possible in the Japanese and EU statements of support for U.S. actions against China under Section 301 last week, but much more collective effort is needed. It was bad enough that the administration withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and took the United States out of the rule-making game in Asia. Now the president risks being even further isolated and outflanked by China as he puts NAFTA, KORUS, and the WTO itself at risk for no appreciable gain for American exporters (quite the opposite, since the loss of market share would be a blow, especially for U.S. farmers and cattlemen).

The third problem relates to human rights and democracy. The administration has been strong in support of these universal norms in Venezuela and Cuba compared with Obama, but the current approach evokes former Amb. Jeane Kirkpatrick’s “dictators and double standards” argument at the beginning of the Reagan administration. It is easy to coddle authoritarians in your ranks while going all out against authoritarians in your adversary’s camp, but eventual the authoritarians in your camp will become sources of weakness and risk. By the mid-1980s, Kirkpatrick’s approach gave way to a far more nuanced and strategic approach when Secretary of State George Schultz convinced Reagan he had to pressure Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines and Chun Doo-hwan in South Korea to move towards democracy, lest those allies become too vulnerable to revolution and upheaval. President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines is one of several authoritarian figures who Trump has chosen not to pressure, but his administration will have to shift from Kirkpatrick to Schultz in order to be on the right side of history.

Every NSS has contradictions in the articulation of ends, ways, and means. This one is no different. The strategy will have to evolve. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and the document’s principle drafter, Nadia Shadlow, have helped the president formulate the beginnings of a coherent strategy. It needs work, but they deserve credit for producing a document as cohesive as any of its predecessors and in many respects far more honest about the challenges. Doing so in the first year of administration is a first, particularly in an administration led by the most disruptive president in modern history.


Michael J. Green is the senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a professor at Georgetown University. He served as the senior National Security Council official on Asia policy during the George W. Bush administration. Twitter: @JapanChair