WASHINGTON – Declaring that "economic security is national security," President Donald Trump aimed to reframe a national debate over his domestic economic and trade policies by thrusting them into a national-security context.
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"Economic vitality, growth and prosperity at home is absolutely necessary for American power and influence abroad," Mr. Trump said on Monday as he unveiled his new national-security strategy. "Any nation that trades away its prosperity for security will end up losing both."
Recounting a year of stock-market gains and unemployment-rate decreases, Mr. Trump on Monday alleged that his predecessors prioritized nation building abroad over economic growth at home. He said his new national-security strategy -- released on Monday as mandated by Congress -- provided a needed contrast, and included plans for cutting taxes, rebuilding roads and bridges and building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
The president on Monday also focused on a more-traditional definition of national security, including China and Russia in a list of threats he said included terrorist groups, transnational criminal networks and "rogue regimes," a phrase the president has used to describe North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The White House's new national-security strategy calls for strengthening the U.S. military by expanding missile-defense capabilities and adding to the nuclear-weapons arsenal.
From the campaign trail, China was a frequent target of blame from Mr. Trump for the decline in some manufacturing sectors. But in the White House, the president has backed away from some of that criticism as he has sought to tighten his bond with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
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Mr. Trump also has maintained cordial relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, prompting criticism from within his own party amid revelations of Russian tampering in the 2016 presidential election.
In the national-security strategy, Mr. Trump portrayed China and Russia as dangerous rivals that have exploited attempts at engagement from previous administrations. On Monday, he referred to them as "rival powers" seeking to "challenge American influence and wealth." But in an indication of the fine line that the president is attempting to walk, he quickly pivoted to talk about cooperation.
"We will attempt to build a great partnership with those and other countries, but in a manner that always protects our national interest," Mr. Trump said. An example of that cooperation, he said, was the U.S. recently sharing intelligence with Russia about a pending terrorist attack in which "thousands could have been killed."
"That is the way it's supposed to work," Mr. Trump said.
Central Intelligence Agency officials wouldn't comment further on Mr. Trump's assertion about the plot, and referred questions to the White House.
The new strategy drew criticism from environmental groups such as Greenpeace for dropping any mention of climate change as a security threat. The American Civil Liberties Union said Mr. Trump made only "empty references" to human rights and the rule of law.
Beijing is likely to proceed cautiously in responding to Mr. Trump's speech, as Chinese officials try to gauge whether the stern rhetoric will lead to concrete policy changes, said Steve Tsang, a China expert at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.
Mr. Trump's previous threats of tariffs on China and other tough trade measures have yet to be implemented after months of warnings.
"It will certainly get the full attention of the Chinese government," Mr. Tsang said. "But I don't think the Chinese government would respond immediately."
China's Ministry of Commerce didn't respond to a request for comment on reports ahead of Mr. Trump's speech that he would take a hard stance on Chinese trade practices. Asked about such reports in a regular news briefing on Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying declined to comment ahead of the speech but defended trade between China and the U.S. as mutually beneficial.
She said the two-way trade volume exceeded $550 billion in 2016, and that the China-U.S. trade relationship directly and indirectly has provided 2.1 million employment opportunities for the U.S. "We think the sustainable and sound development of the China-U.S. economic relationship is in the interest of our two peoples."
Long critical of China, Mr. Trump's personal views on the country seemed to turn more favorable after his first state visit there in November, in which he lauded his host, Mr. Xi. Mr. Trump's ability to press China on trade is also limited by the U.S.'s need for China's cooperation on North Korea and the backlash to the U.S. economy that would result from a trade war.
"Now we don't know which is the real policy," said Mr. Tsang. "I think he's perfectly capable of swinging back and forth."
Simon Shen, a professor of global studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, noted that George W. Bush had also once described China as a "strategic competitor" instead of "strategic partner," but that such terms can't translate easily into policy.
"When Bush needed China's collaboration after 9/11, the U.S. ironically became a major facilitator of the economic progress of this 'strategic competitor,' " he said.
While he described the world as one of heightened rivalries and potentially dangerous competition, Mr. Trump focused t he first two-thirds of his 28-minute speech on much of his first year in office.
Recalling his election last year, Mr. Trump said his elevation represented a "glorious new hope" from the American people who chose him as a rejection of the "failures of the past."
He said previous presidents "presided over one disappointment after another" when it came to protecting America.
"They surrendered our sovereignty to foreign bureaus in far away capitals," Mr. Trump said.
"But last year," he added, "all that began to change."
--Michael R. Gordon in New York and Eva Dou and
in Beijing contributed to this article.
Write to Michael C. Bender at Mike.Bender@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
December 18, 2017 18:15 ET (23:15 GMT)