Assessing the Trump China Strategy: The Key Documents

Now is the proper time for the broader foreign policy community to step back and assess the successes and failures of Trump era diplomacy. There have already been a few attempts of this sort for Trump’s China policy, but I find myself disappointed, if not entirely surprised, with how vapid and partisan these assessments tend to be. At some point in the near future I would like to do my own review of Trump era China strategy. This will require a deep dive into the details of the strategy the Trump administration pursued. The starting point for this is the many speeches, planning documents, memos, and strategy reports issued by the administration to execute their strategy. At a minimum, a proper assessment of the administration’s China policy must ask whether these documents present an accurate picture of the ‘China challenge,’ whether the administration’s strategic aims actually resolve this challenge, and whether their chosen means of action could have accomplished these desired ends. To this must be added an assessment of the administration’s skill in execution. But too many people are skipping to this last step without putting in the hard work necessary to understand the first three.

To that end, I have compiled a list of all the major public statements of this strategy as it evolved over time. It is likely that many of these documents will be removed from their respective websites once the Biden folk take the reins, so if this sort of thing interests you I recommend downloading a copy of them all while you can.

  1. Declassified NSC memo, Matt Pottinger, “U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific” (2017)
  2.  White House, 2017 National Security Strategy (December 2017)
  3.  Secretary of Defense James Mattis, public “Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge,” (Jan 2018) 
  4. Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, Findings of the Investigation into China’s Acts, Policies, and Practices Related to Technology Transfer, Intellectual Property, and Innovation under Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974 (March 2018) 
  5.  Department of Defense, Indo-Pacific Strategy (June 2019) 
  6.  Vice President Mike Pence, “Remarks at the Frederic Malek Memorial Lecture,” Delivered at the Hudson Institute (24 October, 2019) 
  7.  Department of State progress report, Advancing a Shared Vision: A Free and Open Indo-Pacific (Nov 2019) 
  8.  Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, ”Economic and Trade Agreement Between The United States of America and the PRC: Phase One” (January 2020) 
  9. White House, public report, “United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China” (May 2020) 
  10.  Deputy National Security Advisor Matt Pottinger, “Remarks on May 4th,” delivered at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia (4 May 2020) 
  11. National Security Advisor Robert C. O’Brien, “The Chinese Communist Party’s Ideology and Global Ambitions,” delivered in Phoenix, AZ (26 June 2020) 
  12. FBI Director Christopher Ray, “The Threat Posed by the Chinese Government and the Chinese Communist Party to the Economic and National Security of the United States” delivered at the Hudson Institute (7 July 2020) 
  13. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, “Communist China and the Free World’s Future,” delivered at the Richard Nixon Memorial Museum (23 July 2020) 
  14. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, “Virtual Keynote Speech at APCSS,” delivered in Honolulu, Hawaii (26 Aug 2020) 
  15. Matt Pottinger, “The Importance of Being Candid,” delivered at the London Policy Exchange (23 October 2020) 
  16. Department of State Policy Planning Staff, Elements of the China Challenge (Nov 2020) 

I will happily add to this list if any reader makes a good case I have missed something important. These documents were produced by the Trump administration’s political appointees and their immediate staff. To get a sense of how other parts of the government were thinking about China during the same period, you might instead consult:

Readers will notice how many of these documents come from 2020. This is partially because the Trump administration made a strategic shift in late 2019 (a shift accelerated in 2020 by the pandemic outbreak) towards a “whole of government” response to China. One of the questions a project like this should investigate is whether the maneuvers of 2020 represented a break with the administration’s past strategic approach or simply an intensification of it.

To read more of my writing on American and Chinese relations in the Asia-Pacific, see my posts “Why I Fear for Taiwan,” “China’s Attack on Australia is About the United States” “Losing Taiwan Means Losing Japan,” “The World That China Wants,” “At What Point is Defending Japan No Longer Worth It?” and “Taiwan’s Past Matters Less than Taiwan’s Futureof interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

Leave a Comment


Does Attorney General Barr’s Remarks on China Policy at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum on July 17, 2020 deserve a spot on the list?

Of the first set of documents, links 3, 4, and 9 are broken and lead to a 'page does not exist' error message on your own blog; in the first of these" has been added to the beginning of the link, while in the other two that URL is the whole link.

However, aside from link 8 (the Phase One Trade Agreement), all of the documents with working links are saved on the Internet Archive and so should be available even if Biden's administration removes them from government websites.

Thanks folks. Fixed the links, but it looks like many of them are already being taken down, especially on the White House website.