A 2018 strategy document from the National Security Council (NSC), declassified many years ahead of schedule Tuesday, outlined the Trump administration’s strategy for the Indo-Pacific region, including the U.S. strategic framework for containing Chinese ambitions in the region.
Australia’s ABC News theorized that the document, which was not due for declassification until 2043, was made public with such extraordinary speed in an effort to keep American strategy consistent through the next administration:
“This is a highly significant document. It’s extraordinary that it’s been released decades early,” Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at ANU, said.
“I think it’s a signal about the kind of continuity that the permanent government of America, or if you like the officials, want to see in America’s relations with the Indo-Pacific, including in managing China’s power.”
Washington sources familiar with the development of the strategy say Australia had a significant influence on the document, as did Japan.
One of ABC’s sources said the document was released in order to reassure U.S. allies that “we are not fading away, but doubling down” in the Indo-Pacific region.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) less charitably speculated the document was published by the permanent strategic policy bureaucracy in Washington to reassure the public that “beneath President Donald Trump’s unpredictability, conceit and unilateralism, the policy professionals were striving to advance a more serious and coherent agenda.”
The lead author of the 2018 document was then-National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. The decision to declassify the document early came from current National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, who said he was releasing the “United States Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific” to “communicate to the American people and to our allies and partners, the enduring commitment of the United States to keeping the Indo-Pacific region free and open long into the future.”
O’Brien said President Donald Trump’s 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) recognized “the most consequential challenge to the interests of the United States, and those of our allies and partners, is the growing rivalry between free and repressive visions of the future.”
“The Framework recognizes that a free and open Indo-Pacific depends on robust American leadership. The United States has a long history of fighting back against repressive regimes on behalf of those who value freedom and openness. As the world’s largest economy, with the strongest military and a vibrant democracy, it is incumbent on the United States to lead from the front,” he declared.
O’Brien stressed the importance of coordinating strategy with America’s partners in the region and said the U.S. strategic framework was developed in harmony with the regional strategies of Australia, Japan, India, South Korea, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). He quoted President Trump describing the Indo-Pacific in 2017 as “a beautiful constellation of nations, each with its own bright star, satellites to none — and each one, a people, a culture, a way of life, and a home.”
Some parts of the Framework are redacted, but the available text makes it clear that containing China without aggressively confronting it, and perhaps sparking a wider regional conflict, was a major strategic goal. Protecting Taiwan, preserving “free and open access to the Indo-Pacific region,” and containing the nuclear threat posed by China’s clients in North Korea were outlined as major goals, even as the strategic document recognized that the balance of powers in the Indo-Pacific is inexorably “shifting.”
“Strategic competition between the United States and China will persist, owing to the divergent nature and goals of international rules and norms to gain an advantage. China will circumvent international rules and norms to gain an advantage,” the 2017 strategy framework warned.
“Chinese economic, diplomatic, and military influence will continue to increase in the near-term and challenge the U.S. ability to achieve its national interests in the Indo-Pacific region,” it continued.
The Framework’s most unsettling passages concerned the ideological and political threats posed by China’s growing influence over the digital realm, reaching far beyond the Indo-Pacific region:
China seeks to dominate cutting-edge technologies, including artificial intelligence and bio-genetics, and harness them in the service of authoritarianism. Chinese dominance in these technologies would pose profound challenges to free societies.
China’s proliferation of its digital surveillance, information controls, and influence operations will damage U.S. efforts to promote our values and national interests in the Indo-Pacific region and, increasingly, in the Western hemisphere and at home.
The Framework suggested developing India as a counter to Chinese political, economic, military, and cyberspace influence, and making all necessary investments to hold ASEAN together as an alliance against Chinese aggression. The importance of protecting U.S. and allied technology from Chinese intellectual property theft was heavily stressed.
Australia, Japan, and South Korea were described as the backbone of effective opposition to Chinese ambitions in the Pacific, provided their “capabilities and will” could be strengthened sufficiently, while closer U.S. relations with other regional powers like the Philippines and Thailand were recommended to “strengthen their role in upholding a rules-based international order.”
The overall goal seems to have been convincing second- and third-tier Indo-Pacific governments that China seeks to dominate them and giving them good reasons to push back while undermining China’s efforts to present itself as an irresistible hegemonic power with a superior economic and political system. One of the major strategic objectives outlined in the Framework was “promoting U.S. values throughout the region to maintain influence and counterbalance Chinese models of government.” Another was investing in “capabilities that promote uncensored communication between Chinese people.”
The authors and contributing agencies behind the Framework emphasized that China must not be allowed to believe it has gained air and sea military dominance over “first-island-chain” nations, prominently including Taiwan but not limited to that particular island. The implicit concern is that China would become more likely to invade Taiwan if it believed it held such a dominant position that it could score a swift victory, and then it might keep going, securing all of its military objectives across the Indo-Pacific.
Contrary to speculation that the national security bureaucracy declassified this document decades ahead of schedule because it wanted to assert its primacy over Trump’s chaotic foreign policy, the framework is broadly consistent with Trump’s policy goals regarding China and the Indo-Pacific region.
The document is strongly supportive of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, for example, and it encouraged expanding “U.S. intelligence and law enforcement activities that counter Chinese influence operations,” a goal the Trump administration unquestionably emphasized.
The scorecard for implementing the 2017 strategic framework over the following three years is far from perfect, especially after the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic, which China ruthlessly exploited to overturn many of the policy goals outlined in the NSC document. As 2020 drew to a close, China was aggressively using the pandemic and its disruptions to argue for the superiority of its authoritarian system and command economy, the exact opposite of how the framework authors hoped the world’s new struggle against authoritarianism would be faring at the end of Trump’s term.
The framework’s hopes for bringing Japan and South Korea closer together to counter China have sadly not been realized; as of Wednesday, Japan was thinking about ejecting the South Korean ambassador over the latest developments in the long-running dispute over Japanese compensation for World War Two atrocities. ASEAN signed a gigantic trade pact with China in November, a development China hailed as the “end of U.S. hegemony in the West Pacific.”