As national security adviser to U.S. President Donald Trump, H.R. McMaster was heavily involved in the policy discussions from 2017 on how to address the growing threat of North Korea.

In a recent interview, McMaster was asked his views on some of the most pressing foreign policy issues facing the Asia-Pacific region.

These ranged from the nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles being developed by North Korea to the growing military presence in the region of China and its confrontation with the United States over trade and other issues.

McMaster, 56, left the Trump Cabinet in April 2018 and retired from the U.S. Army as a lieutenant general in June 2018.

Excerpts of the interview follow:

Question: Several U.S. officials mentioned that you were one of the most proactive proponents of military action against North Korea in about 2017. To what extent is that true?

McMaster: Right. Everyone wants to avoid a military confrontation with North Korea. But what's important is that we and our allies, the United States and Japan and South Korea, are prepared for the worst. The development of military options is to prepare for the worst case.

Q: At that time, what were the chances of a military confrontation? There was one U.S. senator who talked about a 30-percent possibility.

A: I think it's impossible to put a percentage on the likelihood of conflict. But I do think that we were on a path that, if we were unable to alter that path, that it was on a path to conflict. And the reason is, President Trump, from the very beginning, said that a nuclear North Korea is unacceptable.

Q: In the case that the United States had attacked North Korea, the response from North Korea would have caused major damage to South Korea and Japan. Given that, was a military option still a very realistic one?

A: North Korea has never developed a weapon that it didn't try to sell to somebody else. We should remember that North Korea was already helping this brutal regime in Syria develop a nuclear capability. It was very important for us to emphasize preparation for what could have been a preventive military action. No one would take that decision without consultation with our allies in the region.

Q: Wouldn't you say that any attack on a nation that possesses nuclear weapons would be very difficult and cannot be considered very realistic?

A: I think people skip the discussion sometimes (about Kim's motivation) and what they do is assume that Kim Jong Un wants a nuclear weapon for deterrence purposes. I think that is a flawed interpretation of what's motivating him, because, as we know, every act of aggression on the Korean Peninsula since June 1950 has been initiated from the North. And of course, Kim Jong Un already had tremendous deterrence capability conventionally. We have to be open to the possibility that Kim Jong Un wants to use his nuclear weapons as a treasured sword to break apart the U.S.-South Korean alliance as the first step in unifying the peninsula by force. I think the preparation of military options by the United States and its allies is vitally important because there have to be viable options in case the worst happens.

Q: In March 2018, a high-ranking South Korean government official informed U.S. officials that Kim Jong Un was ready to meet with President Trump. While Trump agreed to such a meeting, I understand that you were initially opposed to it. Was that actually the case?

A: I wasn't really opposed to the summit. I had concerns about it that I raised with colleagues and with the president. My concern was that the campaign of maximum pressure may not have proceeded long enough to really convince Kim Jong Un that his regime is less safe with nuclear weapons than he is without them. Being aware of the failed patterns of past efforts to negotiate with the Kim regime, I thought it was important for us to wait for the appropriate moment. Kim Jong Un was an unknown quantity so I thought there was a certain risk, but also unknown potential.

Q: Ultimately, President Trump did decide to go ahead and meet with Kim?

A: Once the president made the decision, we wanted to take full advantage of the opportunity. With previous multinational efforts at the working level, there were just too many opportunities to spoil it from the bottom up. I thought it was worth the risk to have the initial summit in Singapore. What we tried to do is do our best to set the right conditions for that initial summit. I, of course, departed the White House prior to the summit.

Q: However, the second summit also did not lead to any concrete results either. In fact, aren't there growing concerns that since the first summit in June 2018 fighting capability has declined in light of the cancellation of joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea?

A: It would be irresponsible for the United States and its allies to not prepare for a military option. The preparation of military options is vitally important, not because you expect the president to choose those, but we should work hard to develop the best possible option and prepare for the worst. It would be irresponsible not to.

Q: The confrontation between the United States and China is worsening. I think that the National Security Strategy that you were in charge of in late 2017 acted as a trigger to heighten the tension. I was surprised by the wording that described China as a "competitor" to the United States and "revisionist" because the government was trying to alter the world order. Could you elaborate on this paradigm shift?

A: I think it may be the most significant shift in American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. The shift of China policy was based on the recognition that the assumptions on which previous policies were based were fundamentally flawed.

Q: What were the flawed assumptions?

A: The belief that China having been welcomed into the international community and into international trade and commerce protocols would play by the rules and would liberalize its economy and move away from the state capitalist model toward a free market economy. The corollary to that assumption was that China, once it began to prosper, would also liberalize its form of governance.

Q: Are you referring to the engagement policy of trying to change China into a presence that would support the global order led by the United States?

A: By 2017, we came to recognize that China was not only not liberalizing, but was engaged in a very aggressive foreign policy and engaged in promoting an alternative system--a modern form of the tributary system in which China is developing servile relationships with countries that have to play by China's rules.

China was engaged in the forced transfer of intellectual property under the Joint Venture Law, as well as an unprecedented campaign in scale and scope of industrial espionage using cyber and other means.

The very aggressive foreign policy and military policy was typified by the reclamation efforts in the South China Sea and the militarization of those islands and to really gain a high degree of control or influence over strategic locations globally through this Belt and Road Initiative.

Q: You must have felt a sense of betrayal. What are some of the key points of the new China policy to counter a rising China?

A: In early 2017, it was quite clear to us that the policy needed to change and it needed to center around the recognition that China is a strategic rival. We had to protect the vital interests of free and open societies of the world from China's sophisticated campaign of aggression. By competing that doesn't mean that we close the door on cooperation. We thought that competing while looking for areas to cooperate was the best way to avoid what nobody wants which is direct confrontation.

Q: The Trump administration has strengthened its engagement with Taiwan by, for example, deploying U.S. naval vessels to the Taiwan Strait. But a high-ranking Chinese military official who I recently interviewed said there was only a low possibility of the United States intervening militarily should China try to use military means to unify Taiwan. What is your view on this?

A: I think that Chinese officials should pay attention to history. It was the perception that South Korea lies outside the United States military protective area at the end of World War II that led the Chinese as well as the North Koreans to believe that the United States would not respond to an invasion of the Korean Peninsula. The United States has contributed since the end of World War II to prevention of conflict through forward-positioned capable military forces. This is just a continuation of a long-standing American military presence in the Indo-Pacific region.

Q: China has also been making aggressive moves into the East China Sea and South China Sea. It has also recently begun mobilizing fishermen as a type of maritime militia. How do you view this move?

A: I think what you've seen China do is use unconventional forces under the cover of growing conventional force capabilities. I think a range of capabilities have to be used against this maritime militia. For the first time now, U.S. Coast Guard vessels are on extended cruises in the Indo-Pacific region. There ought to also be financial and economic consequences for the companies and the individuals that are operating these boats that form maritime militia.

Q: In your view, how should the United States manage the China situation in the future?

A: The Chinese have made many promises over the years and kept very few of those promises. Just think back to the 2015 visit of President Xi Jinping and the announcement in the Rose Garden with President Obama that China is going to end this campaign of industrial espionage. Actually, they're more active than they've ever been. What I think you're likely to see from U.S. officials, such as Ambassador (Robert) Lighthizer, the trade representative, and others who are working on this is that same degree of skepticism and a focus on enforcement. I think what would make sense would be to keep tariffs in place until you actually see a change in Chinese Communist Party behavior.


Kenji Minemura was a visiting scholar at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University and then worked as the Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent in Washington, D.C. He also previously worked as a correspondent in Beijing.

Minemura recently interviewed Liu Mingfu, a professor at China's National Defense University and a retired colonel in the People's Liberation Army.