The Trump administration’s newly declassified strategic framework for the Indo-Pacific stressed countering China’s influence in the region, counterbalancing by strengthening India, vowing to defend Taiwan, and more — and its public release upset the Chinese Communist Party.
The 10-page, largely unredacted, National Security Council framework, which guided the U.S. strategy for confronting China and partnering with U.S. allies in the region, appeared to have been authored by now-former deputy national security adviser Matthew Pottinger, was approved by President Trump in February 2018, and was declassified by national security adviser Robert O’Brien earlier in January.
“The declassification of the Framework today demonstrates, with transparency, America’s strategic commitments to the Indo-Pacific and to our allies and partners in the region,” O’Brien said in a short letter written Jan. 5, adding that “Beijing is increasingly pressuring Indo-Pacific nations to subordinate their freedom and sovereignty to a ‘common destiny’ envisioned by the Chinese Communist Party. The U.S. approach is different. We seek to ensure that our allies and partners — all who share the values and aspirations of a free and open Indo-Pacific — can preserve and protect their sovereignty.”
Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Lijian Zhao condemned the strategy, tweeting, “The newly declassified US document reveals an ill-intentioned strategy to maintain the country’s hegemony in the ‘Indo-Pacific.’ The US should see the Asia-Pacific as a region for mutually beneficial cooperation, not a chessboard for the zero-sum game of rivalry.”
Perhaps most likely to anger China was the framework’s emphasis on protecting Taiwan. The strategy noted that “China will take increasingly assertive steps to compel unification with Taiwan” and said the U.S. goal would be to “enable Taiwan to develop an effective asymmetric defense strategy and capabilities that will help assure its security, freedom from coercion, resilience, and ability to engage China on its own terms.”
It called upon the United States to “devise and implement a defense strategy capable of, but not limited to, denying China sustained air and sea dominance inside the ‘first island chain’ in a conflict, defending the first-island-chain nations, including Taiwan, and dominating all domains outside the first island-chain.”
Last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo eliminated the rules that have long restricted U.S. contact with Taiwanese leaders in the latest U.S. repudiation of China’s claims to sovereignty over the island nation, saying the U.S. would no longer “appease the Communist regime.” The move was met with celebration in Taiwan and condemnation by China.
The U.S. strategy repeatedly encouraged the continued rise of Chinese rival, India, arguing that “a strong India, in cooperation with like-minded countries, would act as a counterbalance to China.”
The framework said the U.S.’s preferred outcome would be that “India’s preferred partner on security issues is the United States” and that “the two cooperate to preserve maritime security and counter Chinese influence in South and Southeast Asia.” The plan called upon the U.S. to “accelerate India’s rise” and to “solidify an enduring strategic partnership with India underpinned by a strong Indian military.” The framework hoped that India “remains preeminent in South Asia.”
The U.S. has increased its arms sales to India in recent years, including $1 billion in weapons sales in 2016, $754 million in 2017, $282 million in 2018, $6.2 billion in 2019, and $3.36 billion in 2020, according to the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency. Between 1950 and 2015, total U.S. defense sales to India had totaled $7.4 billion.
The framework argued that U.S. national security interests in the Indo-Pacific region are to “preserve U.S. economic, diplomatic, and military access to the most populous region of the world and more than one-third of the global economy.” And it presented questions on how 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.”
In 2018, then-Defense Secretary James Mattis announced that U.S. Pacific Command would be renamed the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, in a nod to India. Mattis said the goal was to ensure countries in the region are “not bound by any nation’s predatory economics or threat of coercion” — a likely reference to China.
The declassified strategy assumed that “strategic competition between the U.S. and China will persist” due to “the divergent nature and goals of our political and economic systems” and that China “aims to dissolve U.S. alliances and partnerships in the region.” It argued the “loss of U.S. preeminence in the Indo-Pacific would weaken our ability to achieve U.S. interests globally.”
The framework said North Korea’s nuclear missiles and intention of conquering South Korea “pose a grave threat” to the U.S. and its allies and that “strong U.S. alliances” with Japan, India, South Korea, Australia, and others “are key to deterring conflict” in the region.
The U.S. laid out goals, which it has achieved to varying levels of success, including aiming to ensure that “North Korea no longer poses a threat to the U.S. homeland or our allies.” It hoped the U.S. “maintains diplomatic, economic, and military preeminence in the fast-growing region of the world” and that “most nations in the Indo-Pacific view the United States as their preferred partner.”
The strategy took repeated aim at China, saying a goal would be that “the United States and its partners on every continent are resistant to Chinese activities aimed at undermining their sovereignty” and that the U.S. and its allies could “counter Chinese predatory economic practices that … abet the Chinese Communist Party’s aspiration to dominate the 21st century economy.”
In November, the Washington Examiner learned about the Trump administration’s intentions to ramp up pressure on China in the waning days of Trump’s presidency, even as he refused to concede to President-elect Joe Biden, with part of the goal being to make it untenable for the next president to backpedal.
Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe told the Washington Examiner in December that “China intends to dominate — economically, militarily, and technologically, they want to replace us as the world’s superpower.”