Home inFocus China: Inside and Out (Winter 2022) China From Inside the Trump White House

China From Inside the Trump White House

LTG Keith Kellogg Winter 2022

LTG Keith Kellogg, USA (ret.) served as National Security Advisor to VP Mike Pence, and as Executive Secretary and Chief of Staff of the National Security Council in the Trump administration. He is the author of a new book, War by Other Means: A General in the Trump White House. inFOCUS had an opportunity to speak with him in December.

inFOCUS: Since in the 1970s, the U.S. has considered China a potential partner in the world; a responsible stakeholder, and we’ve done all kinds of things to help them. Was that a good idea? Is it something that changed over time?

Kellogg: Long answer to a short question, when it started it was probably a pretty good idea. But as time went on, we should have modified how we did business with them.  It wasn’t until Donald Trump realized that they really had an economic hammer over us, limiting our economic responses, that we said, “Okay, this is the way they really are.”

That was compounded by what happened with COVID, when they were not open with us. We asked them many times to be open with us, to let us get into the Wuhan Institute of Virology, from which, frankly, there was at least an inadvertent release (of the virus).  It was just a closed shop. 

iF:Was there an element of watching the Chinese deal with their own people in the early days of COVID that made the administration unhappy about China?

Kellogg: Yes on that one. When it first started to break, Matt Pottinger, Deputy National Security Advisor to the president, came in. He’d been a Wall Street Journal reporter in Wuhan years ago when SARS first broke out. He told the president, “They’re not telling you the truth. They’re lying through their teeth about what’s going on.” He said, “Look, something’s happened at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the BSL4 lab. They’re quarantining a city four times the size of London, using their military to do it. They’re creating and developing and manufacturing hospitals on a 24 hour basis and forcibly putting people in them. They’re not talking to us about it.”

At the same time, Bob Redfield, who is the CDC director, said he couldn’t even get hold of anybody in the Chinese CDC, which is important is because we were at the time trying to contain it. If we had realized what was happening, we could have gone to mitigation fairly fast.

The president got really frustrated with President Xi, so he talked to him. But he was not forthcoming even when we asked him to share. The president basically said, “Okay, these people are not friends of ours.” We saw that they didn’t help us by telling us what the issues were, and the problem was. 

We were actually 30 to 60 days behind, and they did it deliberately.

iF: China has a lot of people in American universities and research institutions. Is this a time that we tell them all to go home? Is this when we say, “We can’t deal with you anymore”?

Kellogg: That should be at least an option. It’s harsh and I know that. But these people – the Chinese government, not Chinese people – the Chinese government is sending us messages and we’re not responding.  

So maybe one of the messages we send back is, “We are not going to let you have your students come into the United States.” It’s a penalty, and an unfortunate penalty on students. 

China and Taiwan

iF: In your military view, are we prepared for things that the Chinese might decide to do either in Taiwan or the Japanese straits or anywhere else? How are we doing militarily?

Kellogg: Great question. People forget that President Jimmy Carter abrogated the defense treaty with Taiwan on his own, and then Congress had to pass the Taiwan Relations Act, which allowed us to send them defensive materials for the country. But there is no defense treaty with Taiwan now.

Right now we could take actions to help the Taiwan government out, to make sure that they have a defensible island. But it’s not as easy as people may think. Taiwan Straits are 100 miles across. The only way China is going to get there is by using a pretty large amphibious invasion force. So, the U.S. might decide to park the USS Ronald Reagan in the middle of the Taiwan Straits for a while. Send a message to the Chinese that their provocation, their air provocations especially, into the Air Defense Identification (ADI) zone into Taiwan is unacceptable.

They put more airplanes into the Taiwan ADI in one day than they put in four-plus years of the Trump administration. 

We could turn to the Japanese and say, “Maybe it’s time you change your constitution. Change Article 9, which only gives you a self-defense force, and instead have a military that can be offensively oriented.” Arm the Japanese and they’ve always been a foil for the Chinese.

Diplomatically, we could say, “Maybe it’s time we reconsider the One China Policy,” and then there’s no longer strategic ambiguity. There’s no ambiguity at all. Taiwan is a friend, it’s a democratically elected government. There are only 23 million of them, but we’re have to support them. This is a democratic nation that is considered a pariah by the UN, and yet you’ve got an authoritarian government in China that sits on the Security Council. 

These overflights into ADI are not messages to Taiwan, they are to us and to the rest of the world, “Stay out of the Western Pacific, stay out of our backyard. We will make it really hard on you.” We have to stand up to that. And if we don’t, then over time they will take over Taiwan.


iF: In another part of the world, but in the same context, Russia now holds Europe’s energy supplies hostage. Is that the way they’re going to keep Europe out of Ukraine? Maybe the Europeans don’t want to deal with it because they’re concerned about it being cold in January? More messaging?

Kellogg: That’s a fair assessment. In fact, there are those who think one of Merkel’s biggest mistakes was finishing up the Nord Stream II pipeline. I think that’s right. The reason we sanctioned that last piece when people said, “it’s only the last 20 miles” was that it was the hardest piece. There was only one company in the world that could do that deep work in the pipeline. So, we sanctioned it. So, they stopped. But now that they’ve got it, 80 percent of the natural gas coming into Germany comes out of Russia. And that’s being held hostage, which is why natural gas prices are so high in Germany now. They also cut out Ukraine, which used to be the transit point for natural gas that came through Russia. Now they get nothing. Russia is using it as a lever because that’s how Putin works, and he’s smart.

There’s also a military piece. Europeans just don’t want to stand up to the Russians any more than they do the Chinese. Putin knows that. And he is going to see that the United States is not going to stand up for Ukraine either, even though the Europeans want us to. 

iF: What’s the degree of military cooperation between Russia and China?

Kellogg: I don’t see that much. They’ve signed an agreement, but they’re very different countries with different leadership and governing styles. Their common thread is President Biden. They’re trolling Joe Biden. Trump kept them off guard by picking up the phone and calling them and he would actually separate them out. He’d call Putin and he was always very cordial with Putin; he also knew who he was dealing with. And would call Xi, and he would both keep them in but wouldn’t let them get together. Now they’ve gotten together because they both know that there’s a weak link and the weak link is the president.  Putin and Xi are different, but they’re very similar in how they make decisions. And they’re very, very ruthless.

Punishment as Policy

iF:You wrote in your book about the US strike on the Syrian air base after they crossed our red line on chemicals, and also the strike on Soleimani. It was punishment as policy: you do something bad; you pay a price. Can that work in places that have serious military capabilities such as China or Russia, or does it just invite retaliation that’s going to lead us to an actual war?

Kellogg: You have to ask yourself, “When we start going up the escalation ladder, where do we get off?” It might mean we’re going to go to war. But you have to make sure your adversary understands they’re going to pay an enormous price if they go to war, and we’ll pay a price too. But if this is where you want to go, you go.

One thing Donald Trump did was escalate so hard that a lot of people outside the White House said, “We have no idea where this guy’s going to do.” And that was exactly the response we wanted. We wanted Khomeini to think, “I’m next.” And he was. We told him, “We are coming after you next if we have to.” When we took out the airfield after Syria used sarin gas, Assad was next on the list. And he knew that. If you do that, they say, “Well, maybe I don’t want to go there, because he’s willing to pay a price.”  You have to make a very hard, conscious decision and have the will to follow through.

iF: They have to believe that you will do the next thing.

Kellogg: We did that with Trump, and it made everybody step back a bit. But I’d remind everybody that he was the first president in 28 years that did not start a major war. People said, “I don’t want to get in a fight with this guy.”

When the Russians were in Syria, they used a mercenary group called Wagner, run by one of Putin’s buddies. Three to four hundred of them crossed into an area where we were operating.  We picked up the phone and told the Russians, “You’re encroaching on U.S. territory.” They said, “No, no, it’s not us.” So, we just unloaded on them. We killed over 200 Russians. We told the Russians, “Well, you said ‘It wasn’t you.”

We sent a very, very strong message to Putin, “Don’t screw around with us because we’re going to make you pay a price.”

Putting China on Notice

iF: When you look at China now, not attaching this to politics, but as you look at the region now, what do you think the United States ought to be doing to put the Chinese on notice?

Kellogg:  The first is economic, and that’s where we push back. The second is military. You’ve got to show the military response and it doesn’t have to be direct gun-tube-to-gun-tube. That’s the reason I mentioned parking the USS Ronald Reagan in the Taiwan Straits. You have to push that. You can’t afford to give up Taiwan, because once you give up Taiwan, the entire Western Pacific is wide open to what’s happening.

You’ve got the economic piece, you have the military piece, you have the cultural piece. You mentioned, earlier, sending Chinese students home.  

And you have to get world opinion with you, which is why we should have held China accountable for the Wuhan virus. We were pretty darn sure it came out of there. They’re responsible. You need to have them pay a price and push back on them in every way you can. And hopefully you bring world opinion with you when you do that. 

The Uyghurs are a cultural piece to me. And I’m shocked that the Muslim nations of the world haven’t risen up and pushed back on the Chinese, given what they’re doing in those camps. If it’s not genocide, it’s close to it.  And nobody’s holding them accountable because they see China as having more strength than the United States. They say, “Why should I hitch my horse to your cart when I’m not too sure what you’re going to do?” 

iF: Should the United States think about saying to the NBA or to the Olympics Committee, “We don’t want you to do that. We don’t want the NBA in China while they’re doing this; and we’re not going to support the US Olympic team in Beijing.”

Kellogg: I don’t like using the Olympics in politics. I think it’s unfortunate. I was never in favor of what Carter did with the Moscow Olympics. The fact is the games should never have been put in China, but once they did it, I don’t want to penalize our sports men and women. I think it’s apples and oranges when you’re talking about the NBA and the Olympic sports. The NBA is taking a very active stance as a professional organization and most of their stuff is being made in China – plus the broadcast rights. 


iF: When we left Afghanistan, the Chinese came in looking for minerals and raw materials, as they’ve done that all over Central Asia and Africa. Is there something we can do to counteract that? And, in fact, did we lose something in Afghanistan?

Kellogg:  We looked at the economic price – we had a business model drawn up – for getting the rare earth materials from Afghanistan. We were told it didn’t make business sense. It was going to be really tough and there were other places to get what we need. My point to the Chinese would be, “If you want to do that, good luck.”

Where Afghanistan hurt our credibility in the world was in just walking out. It made a lot of people question American leadership and whether we are really serious.


iF: I was going to ask you if we could close this conversation on a positive note. I think you just gave us one, that the Chinese are not going to have an easy walk in Afghanistan either. But if you wanted to say something about where the United States is in the world and where it’s going in the world, what’s your positive message for the readers of inFOCUS?

Kellogg: Ours is a great nation. Our people are the heart and soul. I always remember reading the three words to the preamble of the Constitution, “We, the people.” And the strength of our nation is the people of our nation.   We are really good and resilient.

Sometimes I’m not too sure our government is as good and as resilient as the people. Too often, our government almost seems to say, “We’re going to get along, hold hands, and sing kumbaya.” No.  We are a powerful nation, and we can use that power for good. 

iF: General Kellogg, thank you.