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North Korea, China Are Expected To Come Up In Trump's State Of The Union


Now, shortly before the White House announcement on sanctions, we had a talk with Michael Anton. He is a spokesman for the president's National Security Council. And we talked about some of the national security threats facing the United States on the eve of the president's State of the Union speech, which comes tonight. Our conversation turned to China, a growing economic and military power, and I asked how the president thinks of China - as a rival, as a threat, as a partner, something else?

MICHAEL ANTON: I think the relationship is perhaps too complicated for there to be one phrase or one word. I mean, the two great examples that I can give you right now are North Korea and trade. So on North Korea, China is essential. Our strategy's to put maximum economic and diplomatic pressure on North Korea. China is North Korea's largest trading partner by far. Without Chinese cooperation, the strategy will be much less effective and possibly won't even work. So on the one hand. Now, on the other hand, we've got the world's largest trade deficit with China. The president has said it's unsustainable, it's got to be addressed. Inevitably as we do things to address that trade deficit and other economic differences we have with China, there will be friction in the relationship.

INSKEEP: We can see projections. And, of course, who knows the future, really? But we can see projections that look five years ahead, 10 years ahead. China will have a larger economy, and there's a lot of power that comes with that.

ANTON: Well, as you say, they are projections. The president will put in place policies to - I mean, nothing can be assured - but to do everything possible to assure that the United States economy remains the largest. And keep in mind, too, that if and when China ever were to surpass the U.S. economy on an aggregate basis, the per capita differential will still be enormous, and that matters.

INSKEEP: Sure. One other thing, Michael Anton. You mentioned North Korea. Having had some time to think about it, has the president or the people around the president concluded that it was productive for the president to go through a number of public arguments or whatever you want to call them with North Korea's Kim Jong Un, talking about who has the bigger nuclear button, for example?

ANTON: Our hope all along was that North Korea can rejoin, or, maybe it's better to say join for the first time, the community of nations by seeing the benefits of ending its international isolation. And the only way to fully end its international isolation is to denuclearize, to commit to denuclearize. And one of the things we don't want to fall into and the president definitely doesn't want to fall into is the same trap that the United States has fallen for before, where you negotiate with the North Koreans. They're not really negotiating in good faith. They secretly continue doing what they were doing, pocket the concessions you make at the negotiation, at the negotiating table, announce some kind of breach, and walk away and start the process over again. And that's what it looks like they're trying to do now. And, you know, we'll see. But, you know, in the meantime, the pressure has got to stay on.

INSKEEP: How would you rate the risk of an accidental nuclear exchange involving North Korea?

ANTON: The United States has got a lot of experience in dealing with these sort of command and control issues, going all the way back to the early Cold War. And this is something that the planners have been thinking about in designing systems for decades. And we are incredibly confident in our system that only the president has the command authority, and this president is absolutely committed to continuing the diplomatic and economic pressure campaign while making clear that the United States will defend itself if necessary.

INSKEEP: I'll grant you that there are elaborate systems on the U.S. side because of so much experience, but this is a conflict with another nation. There are two players involved, and nobody has full control of this situation. And you have two leaders at the top who speak in apocalyptic terms on a regular basis. Does that increase the risk of an accidental nuclear exchange?

ANTON: I would really - I would absolutely dispute that - on a regular basis. What you've heard the president do on a...

INSKEEP: Let's say a number of times.

ANTON: ...On a very handful of occasions, including at the United Nations, is make clear that what the United States deterrent, a declaratory policy, is. That's a valuable thing so that your adversaries know that they shouldn't gratuitously provoke or test you, or think they can get away with things that ultimately they can't get away with. It's good for all sides, to be clear on that. Because nobody wants a war on the Korean Peninsula or anywhere else. And, you know, I'm confident that the only way that outcome could come to pass is if it's deliberately chosen by the other side.

INSKEEP: Well, you're right that a deterrent, a strong deterrent could actually reduce the risk of some accidental exchange. But do you see a risk of an accidental exchange?

ANTON: By making it very clear what U.S. deterrent policy, declaratory policy is, we reduce the risk. And in the meantime, we're going to keep the pressure on North Korea for two fundamental reasons. Keep the resources out of North Korea means it has less - there's just simply less money they can spend on these missiles and on weapons. And the second reason is to bring pressure to bear on the regime and convince it this is not the right path. There's a better path. They have to choose that path.

INSKEEP: Michael Anton, it's been a pleasure. Thank you very much.

ANTON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.