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Ex-Trump National Security Adviser Urges 'A Different Approach' To China

Updated April 23, 2021 at 10:27 AM ET

Retired Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster says he likes some of what he sees so far in President Biden's approach to China.

McMaster was President Donald Trump's national security adviser for about a year. Before that, he was a soldier and a writer. He's thinking about the long-term U.S. competition with China.

Relations grew worse under Trump and have yet to change much under Biden. McMaster contends it's unlikely any president will return to the old strategy of trying to engage China in the rules of the international system.

"I think we have to take a different approach at this point," he said in an interview with NPR's Morning Edition. "I think we have to recognize that the [Chinese Communist] Party is what the party is — especially under Xi Jinping."

Instead, the United States, along with its allies in Europe and elsewhere, needs to "compete more effectively" with China, McMaster said.

He also urges a "multinational approach" for dealing with Beijing militarily.

Below are highlights of the interview, edited for length and clarity.

Interview Highlights

On the previous approach of trying to engage China in the rules of the international system

Well, there's nothing wrong with that approach except for the fact that I think it was still based on this assumption that we were going to change China — that our international approach would essentially moderate China's behavior and the Chinese Communist Party would eventually see the tremendous benefit of playing by the rules. I think we have to take a different approach at this point. I think we have to recognize that the party is what the party is — especially under Xi Jinping, who has extended his rule already once and will do so again, almost certainly. So it's a shift, really, from this idea that we can make the case to China's Communist Party leaders that they should be more like us. Instead, I think what we have to do is to compete more effectively. I think it's really important for us to recognize the need for multilateral cooperation.

On whether the Trump administration made progress by confronting China with tariffs

I think they did make tremendous progress. And I mean, there's certain aspects of President Trump and his administration's implementation of the policy. For example, I mean, I don't see how tariffs on our allies help with China. But I was all for tariffs on China as a way to get China to understand there's a cost associated with its unfair trade and economic practices. I think the Biden administration is determined to bring it to the next level, and I hope they do that. I wish him all success in doing so. And in fact, I think Europe in particular has to take a tougher stance.

On whether a trade war just goes on forever if China doesn't change its approach

Well, potentially. And what we should do is try to be more effective. And to be more effective we have to recognize China's strategy is fundamentally one of cooption, coercion and concealment. So what China does is they collapse companies and they collapse countries with the lure of access to their market, with the lure of short-term profits, with the lure of Chinese investments. And then, hey, once you're in, they use that to coerce you to support their foreign policy. What's most important is we have to kind of protect ourselves against China's divide-and-conquer approach. We have to really work on this problem set together.

On whether President Biden's focus on U.S. cooperation with Europe, Australia, Japan and other allies would be more effective against China than just the United States going it alone

If we are united, right. I think it's really important to understand that our relationship with the EU should be more than just better mood music or a better atmosphere at cocktail parties in Paris. We have to, I think, really work hard to try to get the European Union to take action. And I think initially the indicators are good. So I think it's a better relationship, but it's relationship for a purpose. You know, Secretary [of State Antony] Blinken said, "Hey, we're not going to ask you to choose" [between the U.S. and China]. I mean, well, you know, they are our allies. I think they should choose. ... This is not a choice between Washington and Beijing. I think that when you look at the broad range of aggressive actions by the Chinese Communist Party, that this is not a U.S.-China problem. This is a whole world China problem.

On whether there's a serious risk of war with China in years to come as this confrontation evolves

Yes, there is. And this is where collective defense and [a] multinational approach to establishing security infrastructure across the Pacific is very important. You've seen multinational exercises more and more involving the Indian navy, for example. The Indians have always been reluctant for anything that even looks kind of like a military alliance. And then, of course, countries who are on kind of the Eurasian rimland and who are subjected to coercion by China are anxious for more for more defense cooperation as well.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.