A newly declassified US national security document, which 7.30 has gained exclusive early access to reveals previously secret details of the Trump administration’s strategy for the Indo-Pacific region.
- A source says the White House “incorporated lessons directly” from the Turnbull government into the strategy
- The document has been released 30 years early
- The strategy is “very forthright on China”, Professor Rory Medcalf says
In early 2018 President Donald Trump endorsed a strategy for the Indo-Pacific developed by his National Security Council through the course of 2017.
7.30 has obtained a national security briefing prepared by the White House.
The document was previously classified “secret” and “not for foreign nationals”. It was officially declassified last week — 30 years earlier than would normally be the case — and will be officially released tomorrow.
“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.
Malcolm Turnbull was prime minister at the time and his government was undertaking its own appraisal of China’s ambitions in the region.
A source says the White House was closely watching what Australia was doing in the region and “incorporated lessons directly from Turnbull and his ministers into the strategy”.
“One compelling conclusion we can draw from this strategic framework is that it’s an alliance-driven strategy,” Professor Medcalf said.
“In some ways, the strategy is a vision of American followership, rather than American leadership.”
Now in the dying days of the Trump presidency, this highly unusual release reveals those involved in running US policy want to make sure the strategic architecture is explicit and on the public record.
This is partly to counter the argument the Trump presidency has been a strategy-free zone.
A source intimately involved in the policy has told 7.30 this is also meant as a gesture of reassurance to the US alliance partners, including Australia, that “we are not fading away but doubling down” in the Indo-Pacific.
Strategy ‘very forthright on China’
Over 10 partially redacted pages the document sets out the United States’ strategic priorities in the Indo-Pacific.
The language of the document is likely to be seen to confirm to Beijing its claims that the US is seeking to contain China.
“This strategic framework is very forthright on China — not quite confrontational but very firm,” Professor Medcalf said.
“It’s under no illusions about the nature of Chinese power or the assertive way in which China is using its power.”
The strategy commits to “devise and implement a defense strategy capable of, but not limited to: (1) denying China sustained air and sea dominance inside the ‘first island chain’ in a conflict; (2) defending the first island chain nations, including Taiwan; and (3) dominating all domains outside the first island chain”.
“This is very clear code for America holding its ground with Taiwan, with partners and allies in the South China Sea, with Japan, with Korea, really maintaining the integrity of those relationships and protecting them from Chinese assertiveness and Chinese aggression,” Professor Medcalf said.
Sources say the document’s language on Taiwan should be read as the US committing to having the capability to deter and, if necessary, rebuff China’s incursions on Taiwan, rather than an intent.
‘By some measures the United States failed’
The document speaks of the need to “align our Indo-Pacific strategy with those of Australia, India and Japan”, of deepening trilateral cooperation with Japan and Australia, and a quadrilateral security relationship with India — all moves that have been made since that time.
The US objective on India is to “accelerate India’s rise and capacity to serve as a net provider of security” by building “a stronger foundation for defense cooperation and interoperability; expand our defense trade and ability to transfer defense technology”, and to “offer support to India through diplomatic, military and intelligence channels — to help address continental challenges such as the border dispute with China”.
On North Korea, the document says the objective is to “convince the Kim regime that the only path to survival is to relinquish its nuclear power”.
“This strategy set up a very, very high bar for American success in the Indo-Pacific on disarming North Korea, deterring China, investing in the region, unleashing American private investment, empowering democracies,” Professor Medcalf said.
“Clearly by some measures the United States failed.
“I think it’s important to note that this strategy unrealistically called for American primacy in the Indo-Pacific, whereas I think the reality is that America is simply being powerful and supportive of allies when it needs to be.”