China policy in Trump’s new National Security Strategy: Excerpts and commentary

After a quick read of the Trump administration’s new National Security Strategy, here several passages bearing on U.S.–China relations, as well as a few comments on them. Not included are several mentions of China’s involvement in other regions of the world.

  • “Every year, competitors such as China steal U.S. intellectual property valued at hundreds of billions of dollars. Stealing proprietary technology and early-stage ideas allows competitors to unfairly tap into the innovation of free societies. Over the years, rivals have used sophisticated means to weaken our businesses and our economy as facets of cyber-enabled economic warfare and other malicious activities. In addition to these illegal means, some actors use largely legitimate, legal transfers and relationships to gain access to fields, experts, and trusted foundries that fill their capability gaps and erode America’s longer-term competitive advantages. We must defend our National Security Innovation Base (NSIB) against competitors. The NSIB is the American network of knowledge, capabilities, and people—including academia, National Laboratories, and the private sector—that turns ideas into innovations, transforms discoveries into successful commercial products and companies, and protects and enhances the American way of life.  The genius of creative Americans, and the free system that enables them, is critical to American security and prosperity” (21).
    • COMMENT: This not just about intellectual property theft, but also about preventing “legitimate” transfers of IP to strategic rivals.
  • “While maintaining an investor-friendly climate, this Administration will work with the Congress to strengthen the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) to ensure it addresses current and future national security risks.  The United States will prioritize counterintelligence and law enforcement activities to curtail intellectual property theft by all sources and will explore new legal and regulatory mechanisms to prevent and prosecute violations” (22).
    • COMMENT: CFIUS reform has strong bipartisan support in Congress, and it is in no small part aimed at erecting or legitimizing barriers to Chinese investments that would result in IP transfer.
  • Leading language under Pillar III, “Preserve Peace Through Strength: — “A central continuity in history is the contest for power. The present time period is no different. Three main sets of challengers—the revisionist powers of China and Russia, the rogue states of Iran and North Korea, and transnational threat organizations, particularly jihadist terrorist groups—are actively competing against the United States and our allies and partners. Although differing in nature and magnitude, these rivals compete across political, economic, and military arenas, and use technology and information to accelerate these contests in order to shift regional balances of power in their favor. These are fundamentally political contests between those who favor repressive systems and those who favor free societies. China and Russia want to shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests. China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor. Russia seeks to restore its great power status and establish spheres of influence near its borders. The intentions of both nations are not necessarily fixed.  The United States stands ready to cooperate across areas of mutual interest with both countries. For decades, U.S. policy was rooted in the belief that support for China’s rise and for its integration into the post-war international order would liberalize China. Contrary to our hopes, China expanded its power at the expense of the sovereignty of others. China gathers and exploits data on an unrivaled scale and spreads features of its authoritarian system, including corruption and the use of surveillance. It is building the most capable and well-funded military in the world, after our own. Its nuclear arsenal is growing and diversifying. Part of China’s military modernization and economic expansion is due to its access to the U.S. innovation economy, including America’s world-class universities” (25).
    • COMMENT: This is the broadest top-level statement of Trump administration views on China. It places China alongside Russia as actors intentionally seeking to move the world away from U.S. interests. It categorizes both as challengers alongside Iran, North Korea, and terrorism. China is unmistakably situated as the most capable “challenger,” set apart from the others in this framing by technological prowess that is both impressive and illegitimately obtained.
  • “In addition, after being dismissed as a phenomenon of an earlier century, great power competition returned. China and Russia began to reassert their influence regionally and globally. Today, they are fielding military capabilities designed to deny America access in times of crisis and to contest our ability to operate freely in critical commercial zones during peacetime. In short, they are contesting our geopolitical advantages and trying to change the international order in their favor” (27).
    • COMMENT: Chinese diplomats might call this “Cold War thinking,” but it’s long been the case that U.S. strategists perceived a strategic competition between the United States and China. The irony of the Chinese accusations of a Cold War mentality has always been that Chinese strategists think that way too. This new U.S. strategy is strong on recognizing some realities of competition, but weak on assessing how today’s global economic and security environment are drastically different from earlier eras of “great power competition.” There really is a downside in depending too much on analytical tools from another era.
  • “[A]dversaries and competitors became adept at operating below the threshold of open military conflict and at the edges of international
    law” (27). “China, Russia, and other state and non-state actors recognize that the United States often views the world in binary terms, with states being either ‘at peace’ or ‘at war,’ when it is actually an arena of continuous competition” (28).

    • COMMENT: Lyle Morris points to the former quote as the “First instance of an NSS identifying the gray zone challenge to the U.S. Certainly not the last.”
  • “Maintaining America’s central role in international financial forums enhances our security and prosperity by expanding a community of free market economies, defending against threats from state-led economies, and protecting the U.S. and international economy from abuse by illicit actors” (34).
  • Information Statecraft: America’s competitors weaponize information to attack the values and institutions that underpin free societies, while shielding themselves from outside information. They exploit marketing techniques to target individuals based upon their activities, interests, opinions, and values. They disseminate misinformation and propaganda. Risks to U.S. national security will grow as competitors integrate information derived from personal and commercial sources with intelligence collection and data analytic capabilities based on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning. Breaches of U.S. commercial and government organizations also provide adversaries with data and insights into their target audiences. China, for example, combines data and the use of AI to rate the loyal of its citizens to the state and uses these ratings to determine jobs and more.” (34–5).
    • COMMENT: As U.S. scrutiny of official Chinese influence operations abroad rises, here it is melded rhetorically with oblique references to both authoritarian Internet censorship and (perhaps even) Russian election interference. For obvious reasons, a deeper meditation on the Russian operations is set aside. What’s left is an allusion to the OPM hack, one to the hype-and-reality of AI/ML factors in national security, and a reference to China’s “social credit system” that conflates the government’s plans and some capabilities already installed in privately-run systems. 
  • “Today, the United States must compete for positive relationships around the world. China and Russia target their investments in the developing world to expand influence and gain competitive advantages against the United States. China is investing billions of dollars in infrastructure across the globe. Russia, too, projects its influence economically, through the control of key energy and other infrastructure throughout parts of Europe and Central Asia.  The United States provides an alternative to state-directed investments, which often leave developing countries worse off. The United States pursues economic ties not only for market access but also to create enduring relationships to advance common political and security interests” (38).
    • COMMENT: I suppose then the U.S. plan to compete with Chinese and Russian influence through investment is to just let the private sector do what it will and bet on a positive result, eh?
  • Ensure Common Domains Remain Free: The United States will provide leadership and technology to shape and govern common domains—space, cyberspace, air, and maritime—within the framework of international law. The United States supports the peaceful resolution of disputes under international law but will use all of its instruments of power to defend U.S. interests and to ensure common domains remain free. Protect a Free and Open Internet: The United States will advocate for open, interoperable communications, with minimal barriers to the global exchange of information and services.  The United States will promote the free flow of data and protect its interests through active engagement in key organizations, such as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), the UN, and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU)” (41).
    • COMMENT: The strategy does not advocate for the ratification of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), so I’m not sure what to make of claims that “international law” should be the framework for maritime governance. “International law” isn’t really the animating framework behind all the cyberspace institutions listed, either. 
  • Under the Indo-Pacific regional section: “A geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order is taking place in the Indo-Pacific region. … Although the United States seeks to continue to cooperate with China, China is using economic inducements and penalties, influence operations, and implied military threats to persuade other states to heed its political and security agenda. China’s infrastructure investments and trade strategies reinforce its geopolitical aspirations. Its efforts to build and militarize outposts in the South China Sea endanger the free flow of trade, threaten the sovereignty of other nations, and undermine regional stability. China has mounted a rapid military modernization campaign designed to limit U.S. access to the region and provide China a freer hand there. China presents its ambitions as mutually beneficial, but Chinese dominance risks diminishing the sovereignty of many states in the Indo-Pacific. States throughout the region are calling for sustained U.S. leadership in a collective response that upholds a regional order respectful of sovereignty and independence” (45–6).
  • Action items under the Indo-Pacific regional section: “Political: Our vision for the Indo-Pacific excludes no nation. We will redouble our commitment to established alliances and partnerships, while expanding and deepening relationships with new partners that share respect for sovereign, fair and reciprocal trade, and the rule of law. We will reinforce our commitment to freedom of the seas and the peaceful resolution of territorial and maritime disputes in accordance with international law. We will work with allies and partners to achieve complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula and preserve the non-proliferation regime in Northeast Asia. Economic: The United States will encourage regional cooperation to maintain free and open seaways, transparent infrastructure financing practices, unimpeded commerce, and the peaceful resolution of disputes. We will pursue bilateral trade agreements on a fair and reciprocal basis. We will seek equal and reliable access for American exports. We will work with partners to build a network of states dedicated to free markets and protected from forces that would subvert their sovereignty” (46).
    • COMMENT: The political vision “excludes no nation” but promises to work with “new partners that share respect for sovereign, fair and reciprocal trade, and the rule of law.” So does that include China? The economic vision promises bilateral trade agreements and a “network of states dedicated to free markets.” Given those goals, wouldn’t it make more sense to get that network together for a broader, more interoperable trade regime—say based on a modified Trans-Pacific Partnership? 
  • “We will maintain our strong ties with Taiwan in accordance with our ‘One China’ policy, including our commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act to provide for Taiwan’s legitimate defense needs and deter coercion” (46).
    • COMMENT: Taiwan was not mentioned in the Obama administration’s February 2015 National Security Strategy. For comparison, here’s the full paragraph on China from that document: “The United States welcomes the rise of a stable, peaceful, and prosperous China. We seek to develop a constructive relationship with China that delivers benefits for our two peoples and promotes security and prosperity in Asia and around the world. We seek cooperation on shared regional and global challenges such as climate change, public health, economic growth, and the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. While there will be competition, we reject the inevitability of confrontation. At the same time, we will manage competition from a position of strength while insisting that China uphold international rules and norms on issues ranging from maritime security to trade and human rights. We will closely monitor China’s military modernization and expanding presence in Asia, while seeking ways to reduce the risk of misunderstanding or miscalculation. On cybersecurity, we will take necessary actions to protect our businesses and defend our networks against cyber-theft of trade secrets for commercial gain whether by private actors or the Chinese government.” Other mentions in that version flagged “China’s rise” as a condition that needs to be handled and celebrated U.S.-China cooperation on climate change. The Trump document does not see the climate as a challenge, but does flag climate regulation as a barrier to energy sector success.