The U.S. National Security Strategy (NSS) and National Defense Strategy (NDS) represent the most authoritative open-source assessments of U.S. national security strategy toward China.1 This short analysis compares the rhetoric on China employed by the NSS and NDS of the Donald Trump and Joe Biden administrations using three analytical frameworks: cooperate, compete/confront, and conflict. By employing these three analytical lenses, the article highlights the elements of continuity and change in U.S. China policy across the Trump and Biden administrations.
Since 2017, when the Trump administration unveiled its NSS, a unifying theme has emerged across the two administrations: the national security challenge posed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Yet a careful review of the language on China employed in the NSS and NDS of the Biden administration yields some important contrasts with the previous administration. While both administrations agree on the diagnosis that China represents the greatest national security challenge to U.S. national security interests, the Biden administration’s NSS and NDS prescribe somewhat different remedies to meet the challenge — namely, that the United States cannot succeed on its own and that building consensus and taking action with and through allies and partners offers the greatest chance of success. Finally, this analysis finds that the Biden administration has attempted to strike a balance between the “confront/compete” elements of U.S. China strategy and the “cooperative” side. While both administrations make clear that competition with China is a priority, the Biden administration leaves open the possibility of cooperation with China in certain domains, such as climate change and health. Importantly, the Biden administration’s strategies seek to assuage concerns in Beijing and across the globe about U.S. intentions with respect to conflict with China, something that is largely absent from the Trump administration’s documents.
The Importance of the NSS and NDS
Mandated by the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, the NSS conveys the executive branch’s overall national security vision to the legislative branch and, by extension, the public.2 It provides a snapshot of how a particular administration understands the global security and economic environment. The NSS presents a macro-level picture of global challenges and how the U.S. government aims to address those challenges using all instruments of national power.
The NDS, on the other hand, represents an assessment of the international military and security environment by the U.S. Department of Defense. Compared with the NSS, it is narrowly focused on the military dimension of national security challenges and presents a strategy for how the Defense Department can best leverage its military resources to address those challenges.
Both documents yield critical insights into an administration’s values and priorities regarding China, among other national security challenges. Thus, both offer useful reference points for understanding and comparing over time how the U.S. national security bureaucracy views the challenge posed by China and how the various instruments of national power can be best employed in pursuit of U.S. national interests.
Confront and Compete
Without a doubt, the unifying theme that connects the NSS and NDS of the Trump and Biden administrations is the assessment that China possesses both the capability and the intent to challenge the international “rules-based order” that the United States helped create after World War II. While Russia and China are highlighted as the “principal competitors” in both the Trump and Biden strategies, China is the only competitor with the means and capacity to challenge U.S. national interests over the long term.
The 2017 NSS concludes that “China and Russia want to shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests. China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor.”3
The 2022 NSS comes to a similar conclusion: “The PRC is the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do it.”4
Both documents focus on the PRC’s intention to “reshape” the global order in ways that would undermine U.S. interests.
The Trump administration’s NDS comes to the same conclusion on the national security challenge posed by the PRC:
Long-term strategic competitions with China and Russia are the principal priorities for the Department [of Defense], and require both increased and sustained investment, because of the magnitude of the threats they pose to U.S. security and prosperity today, and the potential for those threats to increase in the future. … The central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security is the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition by what the National Security Strategy classifies as revisionist powers. It is increasingly clear that China and Russia want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model — gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions.5
The Biden NDS comes to virtually the same conclusion, finding that
The most comprehensive and serious challenge to U.S. national security is the PRC’s coercive and increasingly aggressive endeavor to refashion the Indo-Pacific region and the international system to suit its interests and authoritarian preferences. The PRC seeks to undermine U.S. alliances and security partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region, and leverage its growing capabilities, including its economic influence and the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) growing strength and military footprint, to coerce its neighbors and threaten their interests.6
While the two administrations’ national security strategies arrive at the same conclusion about the challenge posed by China, their proposals for how to address the challenge differ. In particular, the Biden administration’s 2021 Interim and 2022 NSS documents introduce policies on navigating strategic competition with China that involve investing in domestic infrastructure, a renewed focus on the fight against climate change, and a reassertion of the need to work with and through allies and partners.
The 2021 Interim NSS states that “the most effective way for America to out-compete a more assertive and authoritarian China over the long term is to invest in our people, our economy, and our democracy.”7
To compete with China, the 2022 NSS proposes that the United States rely on its long-standing alliances and partnerships, such as NATO, as well as new, more flexible arrangements, like the Indo-Pacific “QUAD” (which includes Australia, India, Japan and the United States). The NSS highlights how these alliance arrangements are “creating a latticework of strong, resilient, and mutually reinforcing relationships that prove democracies can deliver for their people and the world,” and it asserts that the United States will look for “new ways to integrate our alliances in the Indo-Pacific and Europe and develop new and deeper means of cooperation” between these countries.”8
The 2021 and 2022 strategies could be interpreted as a rebuke of the Trump administration’s “America First” approach, which put a premium on American economic and military strength as the primary means of competing with China. The 2017 NSS is direct about its orientation toward U.S. interests as the core principle guiding a strategy to deal with global challenges. It states,
The whole world is lifted by America’s renewal and the reemergence of American leadership. After one year, the world knows that America is prosperous, America is secure, and America is strong. We will bring about the better future we seek for our people and the world, by confronting the challenges and dangers posed by those who seek to destabilize the world and threaten America’s people and interests.9
The tone is unapologetically U.S.-centric, and the implication is clear: “We are enforcing our borders, building trade relationships based on fairness and reciprocity, and defending America’s sovereignty without apology.”10
Furthermore, while the 2017 NSS makes reference to allies and partners, it is not the central thrust of the administration’s policy to counter the challenge from China. For example, it states, “We will work with our partners to contest China’s unfair trade and economic practices and restrict its acquisition of sensitive technologies.”11 But the inclusion of allies and partners is a means to regain American economic competitiveness by addressing unfair trade practices that might harm American workers.
The 2022 NSS, on the other hand, makes the case that a major piece of a successful China strategy hinges on rehabilitating domestic industrial and scientific research capabilities. The document asserts “that if the United States is to succeed abroad, we must invest in our innovation and industrial strength, and build our resilience, at home.”12 To do that, the United States
… must complement the innovative power of the private sector with a modern industrial strategy that makes strategic public investments in America’s workforce, and in strategic sectors and supply chains, especially critical and emerging technologies, such as microelectronics, advanced computing, biotechnologies, clean energy technologies, and advanced telecommunications.13
The 2022 NSS further details,
The future of America’s success in the world depends upon our strength and resilience at home — and especially the strength of our middle class, which is critical to our national security as an engine of economic growth and a key source of democratic vibrance and cohesion. The reverse is also true. Our success at home requires robust and strategic engagement in the world in line with our interests and values to make life better, safer, and fairer for the American people. That is why we must make far-reaching investments in the sources of our natural strength while building our resilience.14
While the 2017 NSS mentions investing in American domestic infrastructure, the focus is on lifting restrictions on supply and demand forces that would unleash American entrepreneurial advantages, not on government investment as the locomotive driving renewal.
Finally, the Trump administration makes only passing mention of areas of cooperation with the PRC. The focus remains largely on the hard economic and military means of “out-competing” China. The Biden administration, on the other hand, makes an effort to highlight potential areas of cooperation with China. The 2022 NSS, for example, says,
The PRC is also central to the global economy and has a significant impact on shared challenges, particularly climate change and global public health. It is possible for the United States and the PRC to coexist peacefully, and share in and contribute to human progress together. … We will always be willing to work with the PRC where our interests align. We can’t let the disagreements that divide us stop us from moving forward on the priorities that demand that we work together, for the good of our people and for the good of the world. That includes on climate, pandemic threats, nonproliferation, countering illicit and illegal narcotics, the global food crisis, and macroeconomic issues. In short, we’ll engage constructively with the PRC wherever we can, not as a favor to us or anyone else, and never in exchange for walking away from our principles, but because working together to solve great challenges is what the world expects from great powers, and because it’s directly in our interest. No country should withhold progress on existential transnational issues like the climate crisis because of bilateral differences.15
Of all the elements of U.S.-China competition, the possibility that competition could lead to conflict is perhaps the most consequential for world peace and stability. This is arguably where the differences between the Trump and Biden administrations’ China strategies are most apparent.
To be sure, the 2017 NSS acknowledges the potential for conflict with China, stating that “competition does not always mean hostility, nor does it inevitably lead to conflict.”16 Importantly, however, that statement has the following addendum: “although none should doubt our commitment to defend our interests … just as American weakness invites challenge, American strength and confidence deters war and promotes peace.”17
The 2018 NDS is notable for the complete absence of reassurances that the United States does not seek conflict with China. Instead, it says, “the most far-reaching objective of this defense strategy is to set the military relationship between our two countries on a path of transparency and non-aggression.”18 Yet the policy prescriptions that follow are heavily tilted toward the sharp power dimensions of competition, and they provide little in the form of measures that might increase transparency or decrease aggression from China.
Compared with the Trump administration’s rhetoric on conflict with China, the Biden administration’s relative deemphasis of the “inevitability” of conflict with Beijing is stark.
The 2022 NSS, for example, highlights the need for the United States to manage competition with China “responsibly”:
While we compete vigorously, we will manage the competition responsibly. We will seek greater strategic stability through measures that reduce the risk of unintended military escalation, enhance crisis communications, build mutual transparency, and ultimately engage Beijing on more formal arms control efforts.19
Importantly, the 2022 NSS acknowledges concerns among other countries over the trajectory of competition with China.
Some parts of the world are uneasy with the competition between the United States and the world’s largest autocracies. We understand these concerns. We also want to avoid a world in which competition escalates into a world of rigid blocs. We do not seek conflict or a new Cold War. Rather, we are trying to support every country, regardless of size or strength, in exercising the freedom to make choices that serve their interests. This is a critical difference between our vision, which aims to preserve the autonomy and rights of less powerful states, and that of our rivals, which does not.20
The 2022 NDS largely echoes the 2022 NSS on the intention that competition with China need not lead to conflict. It says, “Conflict with the PRC is neither inevitable nor desirable. The Department’s priorities support broader whole-of-government efforts to develop terms of interaction with the PRC that are favorable to our interests and values, while managing strategic competition and enabling the pursuit of cooperation on common challenges.”21
The analysis of differences between the Biden and Trump administration’s approach to competition with China, as enunciated through their national security and defense strategies, yields several policy implications for U.S.-China relations.
First, by emphasizing the cooperative dimensions of U.S.-China competition, the Biden administration seeks to differentiate itself from what was largely regarded as a unilateral and nationalistic approach under the Trump administration. While Biden’s NSS and NDS align with the previous administration’s assessment that China remains the biggest strategic and long-term challenge to the United States, they disagree on the means of competition. The 2022 NSS and NDS leave the door open for cooperation with China, while the 2017 NSS and 2018 NDS largely eschew the idea.
Second, while the Trump administration’s focus on reciprocal and fair trade coupled with hard military power may have spoken to Trump’s political base, the message was received poorly abroad.22 The Biden administration recognizes this imbalance by softening the sharper elements of competition with China and by reassuring the global community that the United States does not seek conflict with China. The Biden administration acknowledges that rhetoric, and its connotations, remain consequential elements of a competitive strategy with China. It also recognizes that countries are increasingly concerned about the prospect of conflict between China and the United States. Such concern is not isolated to U.S. adversaries, but reverberates through NATO and among close U.S. allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific.23 Therefore, the 2022 documents are notable for their attention to and acknowledgment of concerns in Beijing and elsewhere that the more acute elements of U.S. competition with China need not veer into conflict.
Finally, the Biden administration concludes that the United States cannot succeed in long-term strategic competition with China by sticking to an America First, “go-it-alone” strategy. The most recent NSS and NDS reflect the reality that achieving buy-in with allies and partners and building consensus are prerequisites for successful competition with China.
1 National Security Strategy of the United States of America, The White House, December 2017; Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge, U.S. Department of Defense, 2018; Interim National Security Strategy Guidance, The White House, March 2021; 2022 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America, October 2022, U.S. Department of Defense; National Security Strategy, The White House, October 2022.
2 H.R. 3622: Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986.
3 National Security Strategy of the United States of America, The White House, December 2017, 25.
4 National Security Strategy of the United States, The White House, October 2022, 23.
5 Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge, U.S. Department of Defense, 2018, 4.
6 2022 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America, U.S. Department of Defense, 2022, 5.
7 Interim National Security Strategy Guidance, The White House, March 2021, 20.
8 National Security Strategy, The White House, October 2022, 12, 17.
9 National Security Strategy of the United States of America, The White House, December 2017, II.
10 National Security Strategy of the United States of America, The White House, December 2017, I.
11 National Security Strategy of the United States of America, The White House, December 2017, 48.
12 National Security Strategy, The White House, October 2022, 11.
13 National Security Strategy, The White House, October 2022, 11.
14 National Security Strategy, The White House, October 2022, 14.
15 National Security Strategy, The White House, October 2022, 24-25.
16 National Security Strategy of the United States of America, The White House, December 2017, 3.
17 National Security Strategy of the United States of America, The White House, December 2017, 3.
18 Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge, U.S. Department of Defense, 2018, 2.
19 National Security Strategy, The White House, October 2022, 25.
20 National Security Strategy, The White House, October 2022, 9.
21 2022 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America, 2022, U.S. Department of Defense, 2.
22 Bill Neely, “Trump’s ‘America First’ Policy Has Isolated U.S. from World Leaders,” NBC News, December 29, 2017.
23 Tom McTague and Peter Nicholas, “How ‘America First’ Became America Alone,” The Atlantic, October 29, 2020.