The new National Security Strategy (NSS) explicitly prioritizes China and the Indo-Pacific region, highlights industrial policy as a key national security instrument, clarifies the US position on Taiwan, and emphasizes a distinction between China’s government and the Chinese people.
The NSS resolves several elements of US policy that had generated confusion and establishes some useful guidance on how the different instruments of US foreign policy can complement one another.
This is a relatively good strategic framework. Perhaps the biggest weakness is that it took two years to release. Earlier publication may have helped avoid some issues of strategic incoherence and would have provided clearer signaling to both US adversaries and US allies and partners.
The NSS must cover a comprehensive range of topics and as a result there is a lot of nuanced information packed into the document. Analysts will be dissecting each section and drawing many conclusions in the coming days and weeks. However, here are at least four key points that stand out:
Prioritizing China and Russia
When triaging the challenges posed by other nations, the NSS explicitly prioritizes China, then Russia, followed by all others. In the section that defines the strategy by region, the Indo-Pacific is addressed first, followed immediately by Europe, then all other regions. For example, the NSS states:
… this strategy recognizes that the PRC presents America’s most consequential geopolitical challenge. Although the Indo-Pacific is where its outcomes will be most acutely shaped, there are significant global dimensions to this challenge. Russia poses an immediate and ongoing threat to the regional security order in Europe and it is a source of disruption and instability globally but it lacks the across the spectrum capabilities of the PRC. We also recognize that other smaller autocratic powers are also acting in aggressive and destabilizing ways. … (p.11)
Our defense strategy must sustain and strengthen deterrence, with the PRC as our pacing challenge. (p.22)
Russia and the PRC pose different challenges. Russia poses an immediate threat to the free and open international system, recklessly flouting the basic laws of the international order today, as its brutal war of aggression against Ukraine has shown. The PRC, by contrast, is the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to advance that objective. (p. 8)
This mirrors the updated National Defense Strategy which emphasizes the same prioritization. That is important both for the sake of informing how government agencies should divide their focus and resources when forced to choose, and for the sake of reassuring any allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific who may harbor doubts about US commitment and staying power.
The continued emphasis on the Indo-Pacific and on China throughout the NSS (and NDS) appears to be a signal that—while the US government will continue mobilizing support to Europe in response to the war in Ukraine and to other critical regions around the world—the US government will not allow other crises to derail the strategic prioritization of the Indo-Pacific and competition with China.
Support for Critical Industrial Bases
The NSS emphasizes investments in both the defense industrial base and several strategically significant civilian industrial bases. Key passages include:
… the United States is pursuing a modern industrial and innovation strategy. We are identifying and investing in key areas where private industry, on its own, has not mobilized to protect our core economic and national security interests, including bolstering our national resilience. We are securing our critical infrastructure, advancing foundational cybersecurity for critical sectors from pipelines to water, and working with the private sector to improve security defenses in technology products. We are securing our supply chains, including through new forms of public-private collaboration, and using public procurement in critical markets to stimulate demand for innovation. (p. 14)
The war in Ukraine highlights the criticality of a vibrant Defense Industrial Base for the United States and its allies and partners. It must not only be capable of rapidly manufacturing proven capabilities needed to defend against adversary aggression, but also empowered to innovate and creatively design solutions as battlefield conditions evolve. As emerging technologies transform warfare and pose novel threats to the United States and our allies and partners, we are investing in a range of advanced technologies including applications in the cyber and space domains, missile defeat capabilities, trusted artificial intelligence, and quantum systems, while deploying new capabilities to the battlefield in a timely manner. Incorporating allies and partners at every stage of defense planning is crucial to meaningful collaboration. We also seek to remove barriers to deeper collaboration with allies and partners, to include issues related to joint capability development and production to safeguard our shared military-technological edge. (p. 21)
This places industrial policy among other more traditional national security tools (e.g., military, intelligence, diplomatic, economic, and development policies), which is a departure from past editions of the National Security Strategy. During the past two years, we have already seen elements of this approach implemented through a series of executive orders (e.g., EO 14017) and congressional legislation (e.g., the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021, Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, CHIPS and Science Act of 2022). This suggests that trends like “friend-shoring” sensitive supply chains and mobilizing large government-directed investments in strategically important industries (e.g., semiconductors, artificial intelligence, critical infrastructure) will likely continue. FPRI’s Eurasia Director, Chris Miller, provides an in-depth assessment of the ongoing semiconductor competition in his recent book, Chip War, for those interested in more information.
Clarifying the US Position on Taiwan
The NSS clarified the US position on Taiwan in more explicit terms than prior editions of the NSS:
We have an abiding interest in maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, which is critical to regional and global security and prosperity and a matter of international concern and attention. We oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo from either side, and do not support Taiwan independence. We remain committed to our one China policy, which is guided by the Taiwan Relations Act, the Three Joint Communiques, and the Six Assurances. And we will uphold our commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act to support Taiwan’s self-defense and to maintain our capacity to resist any resort to force or coercion against Taiwan. (p. 24)
In effect, the NSS states that the United States (1) opposes any unilateral change to the status quo, (2) does not support Taiwan independence, (3) opposes any use of force or coercion by China, (4) will support Taiwan’s self-defense, and (5) will maintain the US capacity to resist any use of force or coercion by China against Taiwan (i.e., maintain the military posture required to successfully defeat a Chinese military operation if called upon by the President to do so).
This is far more explicit language than we’ve seen in previous editions of the National Security Strategy. It also helps resolve the confusion that some observers have expressed when trying to interpret statements by the president and various agency press secretaries. The clarification should help deter conflict in the Taiwan Strait, which is likely the potential flashpoint in the Indo-Pacific with both the highest probability of large-scale conflict and the highest potential cost if conflict occurs.
Emphasizing the Distinction between China’s Government and the Chinese People
The NSS notably takes a moment to emphasize the distinction between Chinese people versus China’s government and ruling party:
While we have profound differences with the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese Government, those differences are between governments and systems – not between our people. Ties of family and friendship continue to connect the American and the Chinese people. We deeply respect their achievements, their history, and their culture. Racism and hate have no place in a nation built by generations of immigrants to fulfill the promise of opportunity for all. And we intend to work together to solve issues that matter most to the people of both countries. (p. 25)
This is significant both from a values standpoint and from a strategic standpoint. In terms of values, it is obviously important to remember that China is an authoritarian country and ordinary Chinese people both in China and abroad have essentially no opportunity to influence the actions taken by China’s leaders. As such, the US government and public should strive to avoid penalizing Chinese people for offenses committed by China’s government and ruling party. This has policy relevance at a time when concerns about violence against Asian populations in the United States is on the rise and US government agencies have an opportunity to help address that problem.
From a strategic perspective, the distinction is important because the Chinese Communist Party’s strategy for competing with the United States includes relying on ethnic-nationalism and distorting the competition into a competition between peoples rather than a competition between systems, values, and strategic visions. China’s leadership recognizes that they will lose support and face isolation if this becomes a competition that pits China’s authoritarianism and coercive foreign policy against the more popular vision championed by the United States and likeminded countries for a rules-based order that is free, open, prosperous, and secure.
For those closely following US foreign policy, much of the NSS is unsurprising. As is often the case, this edition of the NSS largely serves as confirmation of the strategic trends that have been apparent for the past couple years (and, in many respects, the past couple presidential administrations). However, as this article points out, there are a few subtle changes and those changes may have meaningful strategic implications.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.