What Trump's National Security Strategy Gets Wrong about North Korea and China

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President Donald Trump delivers a speech at the Ronald Reagan Building December 18, 2017 in Washington, D.C. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The Trump administration on Monday released its first-ever national security strategy, an enunciation of the methods it is deploying to achieve safety and prosperity in what is, as the document acknowledges, an increasingly discordant world.

A significant element of the document—which was required by Congress and can be read in its entirety here—is boilerplate, about how the world benefits from American strength and leadership, about the need for economic strength at home in order to lead abroad. This is stuff that previous administrations have regurgitated—and future administrations will as well. Its importance here has everything to do with the doubts engendered by the man at the top, the sometimes erratic, what-will-he-tweet-next president. That the voice of Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser who oversaw the drawing up of the strategy, is meant to be reassuring.

Then there's the stuff that's not boilerplate. And that's where things get interesting—and more than a little incoherent. The document emphasizes—as Trump did in his campaign—the centrality of fair trade to U.S. economic health. "We will insist upon fair and reciprocal economic relationships to address trade imbalances," the document states in the introduction, [and] "we must protect our economy from competitors who unfairly acquire our intellectual property." This—and many other passages like it throughout—is the voice of the president, and that of the man who has become his closest adviser on trade, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer.

Lighthizer has become a quiet but hugely influential force in the administration. A former trade lawyer on Wall Street, he knows his brief and is far more hawkish on the subject of trade than the other principal voice on the subject, former Goldman Sachs COO Gary Cohn, who runs the National Economic Council. Lighthizer is the leader of the most significant trade policy adjustment of Trump's first year: an investigation into how badly the U.S. is damaged by Chinese intellectual property theft. Within the first nine months of 2018 after that review is finished, Trump will likely bring a case against Beijing using Section 301 of the 1974 Trade Act. That allows the administration to impose unilateral sanctions against a trade partner for alleged bad behavior. The provision has been used infrequently since the 1980s when a young deputy U.S. Trade Representative used it successfully to push for sanctions against Japan. That deputy was Lighthizer.

Trump's move to a tougher trade stance against China is not surprising. He campaigned on it, after all. But beyond that, after decades in which American multinational companies were Beijing's biggest cheerleaders in Washington—please don't do anything to rock the boat, that market is just too damn big!—a lot of big business has soured on China. Their operations have been penalized in that market in a variety of ways; they've been forced to give up technology and other intellectual property just to play there, and the situation is getting worse, not better.

The trade component is only part of an overall brief against Beijing in the National Security Strategy. It describes China—along with Russia—as a "revisionist" power" who wants to "shape a world that is antithetical to U.S. values and interests.'' Those are strong words, and they are not the only ones calling out China in the document.

But for an administration that arguably sounds like it's on the cusp of a new cold war with China, there's a big problem: the document reflects the reality that North Korea and its nuclear program remains one of the foremost issues Trump faces. It calls for "complete denuclearization." The problem is, the administration in the past has said it urgently requires China's help in getting to that goal; at various times it has either begged Beijing to do so, or threatened it (by sanctioning a small Chinese bank that does business in the North, with the implication that more such actions were coming in Beijing didn't act.)

The administration in the document elides this incoherence. "We will work with allies and partners to achieve complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and preserve the non-proliferation regime in East Asia," the strategy states. Allies obviously refer to Japan and South Korea, the two U.S. friends most geographically proximate to Pyongyang. But "partners"? Would those include China and Russia, the so-called "revisionist powers" who are also geographically proximate, are allies of North Korea, and who also happen to sit on the U.N. Security Council and thus hold veto power over any further multilateral sanctions Washington might want to bring? Presumably, it does.

This is the dilemma that has been at the heart of the North Korea problem. The National Security Strategy does nothing to address it, let alone resolve it. (Indeed, it may not be resolvable at all. We all may just have to continue to live with the fact that China will never do quite enough to coerce Pyongyang to give up its nukes.) But the language it contains about China, in particular, may make it harder to try to enlist Beijing's help.

Administration officials dealing with the North Korea problem have acknowledged the contradiction in the past. After all, it's been obvious. Trump came into office breathing fire about China and trade, and then after hosting President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago in April came away all warm and fuzzy about the Chinese leader. The administration simply hopes that China will eventually come to understand that North Korea with nukes is not in its interest and act accordingly. Beijing's never done that before, and nothing in Trump's national security strategy makes it likely that China will act anytime soon.